We've all been there. The holidays are approaching and there's that one person on our list for whom we have no idea what to give. It's a common problem that is usually resolved with the purchase of a gift card from a local retailer. From hardware stores to electronic shops to the bookstore, consumers spend millions in the hopes that they can put a smile on someone's face without having to worry about including the return receipt.
Now there's a new kind of gift card with a rather unique offer: an understanding of one's own microbiome.
Recently, a company called uBiome started one of the most adventurous projects in the world of science. Their goal is to take a closer look at the human microbiome by inviting people to purchase a kit that will allow them to sample their bodies, including their nose, mouth, ear, and if willing, gastrointestinal tract.
Once the kit is sent back to the team, located in San Francisco, the samples will be tested to identify all the bacteria located in those areas. The information will be sent back to the person as well as information on how their microbial co-inhabitants may affect overall health.
Just in time for Christmas, the ubiome team is taking their effort to a new level, offering up the opportunity to buy a gift card for that special someone. I talked with Jessica Richman, co-founder of this biotech startup and asked her why this is being offered and what exactly people might gain that's different from something like an iTunes card.
"This is a gift that keeps on giving: knowledge. You gain an excellent idea of who you are and your relationship with your own individual germs. But more than that, you are contributing to a field that is growing at a lightning pace. Not only can you understand more about your health but also you're adding to the scientific understanding of the world."
The microbiome is indeed one of the hottest subjects in science today. The study of the entire microbial composition of the body has been around for some time with groups such as the MetaHIT project and the Human Microbiome Project.
These groups have shown that when it comes to health -- or more specifically health problems -- these resident germs are playing a significant role. Just in the last few years, links have been made between the composition of the microbiome and chronic diseases, such as Crohn's and colitis, obesity, and even our attractiveness to mosquitoes. As research continues, other possible links are destined to come. But as Richman points out, health aside, the study of the microbiome is also helping to dispel a very common myth.
"Our study of the germs that live in and on us is helping to debunk the age-old germ theory of disease. We've all been taught that germs cause disease and if we kill them, then we've cured the disease. It's true in certain situations, but, like the rainforest, the healthy human microbiome is a balanced ecosystem. The correct balance of microbes serves to keep potential pathogens in check and regulate the immune system as well as synthesize vitamins and support digestion. Basically, we're a habitat that other creatures live in."
There is also another perspective on the microbiome that few might realize. Each and every one of us is unique and we have our own "germ print." Even twins have different microbiomes making the study of human germs even more interesting -- and difficult. While researchers are confident that they can gain a general idea of the main actors, the reality of complete individuality combined with other factors including genetics and the environment present some problems. Yet for Richman, these issues are exactly why the uBiome project is perfect for everyone.
"By learning about their unique microbiome, people can learn about their own individual health. It's not medicine - we're not doctors - but we offer something that could pave the way for personalized medicine. There are so many interesting studies related to the human microbiome and so many more will come. We can help a gift card holder correlate available research with their samples. It's really exciting."
But the best reason for giving this germy gift might have nothing to do with health or medicine. This project is another in an ever growing field of "citizen science," which hopes to break the walls between academia and the public.
Unlike an academic environment, where the standard process is to ask a question, formulate a hypothesis, develop and run experiments and then discuss the observed results; citizen science has no restrictive borders. For Richman, there could be nothing better. "We are opening doors with this work. While uBiome aims to improve health one sample at a time, we can gain a better understanding of ecosystems, our relationship with nature and perhaps even the origins of humanity."
Admittedly, during the holidays, the last thing people may want to think about is a scientific gift. The mere concept of offering something associated with a lab environment might seem contradictory to the entire spirit of the time -- especially for a graduate student.
However, scientific gifts have made a surge over the last few years taking this genre well beyond the usual chemistry sets and telescopes of years past. Today you can buy a DNA portrait, plush human organs and germs as well as jewelry in the shape of molecules. With ubiome, the concept of giving is taken to a new level such that not only the recipient gains, but the entire health world as well.
That is definitely a gift we can all appreciate.
An ideal way to serve water to dinner guests (and use as a vase in a pinch!). <a href="http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/00209311/">Mildra, $8.99, Ikea</a>.
So much classier than plastic, such a lovely piece to keep around for snowy winter days. <a href="http://www.homesense.ca/en/index.asp">Wooden dominos set, $16.99, HomeSense</a>.
This bottle stopper makes a great alternative to boring old cork. It also comes in a pickle version. <a href="http://www.urbanoutfitters.com/urban/catalog/productdetail.jsp?id=24016511&parentid=SHOP_STOCKINGSTUFFERS">Banana Bottle Stopper, $8, Urban Outfitters</a>. .
This gift may not be perfect for everyone, but come on, the social media lover on your list will be extremely happy. <a href="http://www.urbanoutfitters.com/urban/catalog/category.jsp?id=SHOP_STOCKINGSTUFFERS&startValue=73"> Like and Dislike Stamps, $14, Urban Outfitters. </a>
This iPad case is made with a rigid foam backing — the perfect accessory for travelling. <a href="http://www.bestbuy.ca/en-CA/product/ifrogz-ifrogz-neofirm-burst-case-for-ipad-marine-ipad-nfb-mrn/10143848.aspx?path=cdbdfa52310ecb833d14c9188c9e6849en02">iFrogz Neofirm Burst Case for iPad, $20, Best Buy. </a>
For the people who love office supplies but can't keep them organized, surprise them with this practical test tube holder. <a href="http://www.urbanoutfitters.com/urban/catalog/productdetail.jsp?id=24979593&parentid=A_ENT_BOOKS_STATIONERY">Test Tube Office Supply Set, $20, Urban Outfitters. </a>
Besides having a beautiful design, these spoons are stoneware and extra sturdy. <a href="http://www.anthropologie.com/anthro/product/home-kitchen/24673519.jsp">Pop-Print Measuring Spoons, $18, Anthropologie.</a>
Take your dog bowling with these interactive rubber pins that also squeak. <a href="http://www.petsmart.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3201360&lmdn=Type&f=PAD%2FpsNotAvailInUS%2FNo">JW Pet iSqueak Bouncin Bowling Pins Dog Toys, $7 to $10, PetSmart.</a>
Everyone loves a cute case when they're pulling out their phone — and at this price, it's easy to switch it up every month or two! <a href="http://www.winners.ca/en/index.asp">Printed iPhone case, $7.99, Winners</a>.
If you need something to keep the Christmas spirit lingering in your kitchen, try this balsam candle by Bath & Body Works. <a href="http://www.bathandbodyworks.com/product/index.jsp?productId=15776146&cp=12586994.12936192.15285206">Fresh Balsam, $15, Bath & Body Works.</a>
How sweet would this set look framed up on a wall? <a href="http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/50209403/">Kort art cards (set of 5), $4.99, Ikea.</a>
This festive and colourful apron has adjustable straps to fit any chef in the kitchen. <a href="http://www.fruits-passion.ca/kitchen-apron/">Kitchen Apron, $8, Fruits & Passion.</a>
Used as centrepieces or candle holders, this set of three will make any space look elegant. <a href="http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/90167439/">Blomster candle holder (set of 3), $19.99, Ikea.</a>
Get cooking and baking with these adorable oven mitts from Canadian Tire. <a href="http://www.canadiantire.ca/AST/browse/8/KitchenBath/3/Textiles/OvenMitts/PRDOVR~0429997P/For+Living+2-Pc+Oven+Mitt+Set%2C+Red+Rooster.jsp?locale=en">Red Rooster Oven Mitt Set, $10, Canadian Tire. </a>
A three-in-one table that lets kids build and play, it also takes up minimal space in your living room (and even better, folds up easily).<a href="http://www.walmart.ca/en/ip/mega-bloks-play-n-go-table/157327?trail=&fromPLP=true&ancestorID=&searchString=&startSearch=&fromSearchBox=&addFacet=">Mega Bloks Play N' Go Table, $18, Walmart</a>.
This is perfect for that friend who always manages to get hurt. Or maybe someone just going through a tough breakup — these bandages would easily put a smile on their face. <a href="http://www.urbanoutfitters.com/urban/catalog/productdetail.jsp?id=17244070&parentid=SHOP_STOCKINGSTUFFERS">Bandages Keep Calm, $8, Urban Outfitters. </a>
Keep your guests full with this four-piece glass appetizer set — ideal for dips or desserts. <a href="http://www.stokesstores.com/en/entertaining/urbain-9-piece-appetizer-set.html">Urbain Appetizer Set, $10, Stokes.</a>
Let the smell of maple syrup waft through anyone's home ... with the help of a yummy candle that will conveniently work with pretty much any decor. <a href="http://www.drakegeneralstore.ca/products/retro-tin-maple-syrup-candle">Retro tin maple syrup candle, $15, Drake General Store</a>.
Remember these? Well if you do, add them back into your life and under your favourite mug. <a href="http://www.modcloth.com/shop/tabletop/nice-save-coaster-set">Nice Save Coaster Set, $12, Mod Cloth. </a>
For running or even just face-washing, this bang-holding headband won't fall down on you. <a href="http://shop.lululemon.com/products/clothes-accessories/women-headbands-and-hats/Bang-Buster-Headband?cc=7356&sli=1">Bang Buster Headband, $14, Lululemon</a>.
For the people you love who love to watch movies and TV on their tablets, this cute stand (which comes in a slew of colours) will be their new favourite accessory. <a href="http://www.futureshop.ca/en-CA/product/podsta-podsta-tablet-stand-holster-2563-12-blue-2563-12/10224643.aspx?path=972d8d36ec3f39eae5169dd9df6f8117en02">PODSTA Tablet Stand Holster, $14.99. Future Shop</a>.
The subtle side of monogramming is on full display with this adorable — and kind of intricate — mug for your hot beverages. <a href="http://www.potterybarn.com/products/alphabet-stoneware-mugs/">Alphabet mug, $13, Pottery Barn</a>.
Even if you're not the type to dress your pet in clothes, your best friend may be — and it does make for a darn cute holiday picture. <a href="http://www.homesense.ca/en/index.asp">Wool handmade dog sweater, $12.99, HomeSense</a>.
Elegance on the dinner table all year round (or at least, for the duration of the winter)? That's the kind of thing that'll get you invited back for holiday dinners. <a href="http://www.westelm.com/products/pinecone-salt-pepper-shaker-e435/?pkey=e%7Cpinecone%7C3%7Cbest%7C0%7C1%7C24%7C%7C3&cm_src=PRODUCTSEARCH||NoFacet-_-NoFacet-_-NoMerchRules-_-'">Pinecone salt and pepper shakers, $19, West Elm</a>.
As pretty a filtered water jug as you can imagine (it's clear, that's just a dark background), the Bobble Jug takes water from the tap to the table — and comes in a variety of colours for whatever your recipient's decor may be. <a href="http://www.waterbobble.com/jug/jug-bobble.html">Bobble jug, $19.99</a>.
Sure, socks sound like your boring, everyday Christmas gift, and $20 sounds like a lot of money for a pair — until you try out some of Smartwool's offerings. These least expensive options for adults that wick sweat and cushion your feet come in fun colours that won't only look good hiking, but everyday as well. <a href="http://www.altitude-sports.com/eng/products/womens-clothing/socks/womens-margarita?sw717">Smartwool Women's Margarita, $19.99, Altitude Sports</a>.
The only stocking stuffer that will keep you up all night. <a href="http://www.comeasyouare.com/default/index.cfm/shop/product/Dirty-Dice-Sex-Game/">Dirty Dice, $9, Come As You Are. </a>
Hoot hoot wouldn't want these ceramic owl mugs by artist Gorky Gonzalez? <a href="http://www.anthropologie.com/anthro/product/home-glassware/25989781.jsp">Handpainted Folk Owl Mug, $14, Anthropologie. </a>
This compact portable speaker hooks up to most smartphones, MP3 players and electronic devices. <a href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008RJZIYE/ref=s9_al_bw_g422_ir01?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-3&pf_rd_r=01R1RGMMCPPF8GK6QEV9&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1436612662&pf_rd_i=172630">Philips SoundShooter Portable Speaker, $17, Amazon.com</a>
The perfect gift for a new mom or dad, this frame can also be customized with your little one's name. <a href="http://www.sears.ca/product/watch-me-grow-personalization-photo-frame/632-000896837-4086-4">Watch Me Grow Personalization Photo Frame, $20, Sears. </a>
Let your kids express themselves this holiday season by writing on the <em>coolest</em> canvas mother nature has to offer. <a href="http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/toys/Sno-Marker-colours-vary/026608083214-item.html">Sno Markers, $7, Indigo/Chapters. </a>
Give your child a New Year's goal: Remember ever single animal's name in this jar. <a href="http://www.sears.ca/product/jungle-animal-set/616-38809-38809">Animal Jungle Set, $10, Sears. </a>
Just think — if your friend ever runs out of mixer for the drinks, all she has to do is snag out of these ornaments from the tree, and voila! Comes in Apple, Cranberry, Blueberry and Pomegranate. <a href="http://www1.shoppersdrugmart.ca/en/Home.aspx">Coastal Cocktails Holiday Ornaments Martini Mixers, $9.99, Shoppers Drug Mart</a>.
120 sexy lottery tickets that can fit into your lover's stocking — or pocket. <a href="http://www.comeasyouare.com/default/index.cfm/shop/product/Kinky-Sex-Scratchers/">Kinky Sex Scratchers, $14, Come As You Are. </a>
Not only great for travelling, but also for those whose partners head to bed first (and are somewhat sensitive to light), this travel book light could very well be a relationship saver. <a href="http://www.mec.ca/AST/ShopMEC/Electronics/PRD~5023-329/lewis-n.-clark-travel-book-light.jsp">Lewis N. Clark Travel Book Light, $9, Mountain Equipment Co-op</a>.
Keep your eggs warm (and your tables festive) with these adorable penguin covers. <a href="http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/gifts/Penguin-Egg-Cozy-Set-2/882709079590-item.html?ikwid=egg+cozy&ikwsec=Toys">Penguin Egg Cozy Set, $15, Indigo/Chapters.</a>
Go back to your college and university years with this drinking game set that includes four shot glasses and drinking games. <a href="http://www.arentwenaughty.com/adult-novelties/adult-games/drink-till-you-drop-game-coffin-p1668.aspx">Drink Till You Drop Game, $18, Aren't We Naughty. </a>
For the outdoor and drink lovers, this metal bottle opener is perfect for any home bar or cocktail cart. <a href="http://www.modcloth.com/shop/kitchen-gadgets/wise-guise-bottle-opener">Wise Guise Bottle Opener, $13, Mod Cloth. </a>
If you have someone on your list who constantly is buying a cup of coffee in the morning, get them in the habit of making it at home. <a href="http://shop.timhortons.com/Catalogue/Details.aspx?categoryId=17&productId=53">Sweet Treat, $15, Tim Hortons. </a>
Who couldn't use some sleep aids around the holidays? This combination of hand soap and lotion (in a super pretty caddy) come in a fragrance to help soothe your recipient's mind and send them off to dreamland. <a href="http://www.bathandbodyworks.com/product/index.jsp?productId=13136314&cm_vc=200">Aromatherapy Soap & Lotion Caddy in Sleep: Lavender Vanilla, $18.50, Bath & Body Works</a>.
If anyone on your gift list hasn't tried out a scrub mitt, now's the time to change their world (for cheap!). Helping with circulation, exfoliation and general stimulation, it's great for flaky winter skin. <a href="http://bodyblitzspa.com/index.php/shop-online/scrub-mitt.html">Scrub mitt, $10, Body Blitz</a>.
Not only fun for those who want to escape to the kitchen during holiday parties but good times for the whole, this fridge magnet Scrabble game is fabulous for the wordsmith in your life. <a href="http://www.drakegeneralstore.ca/products/scrabble-fridge-magnets">Scrabble fridge magnets, $15, Drake General Store</a>.
A toy for every day of the week (plus two more) means your kidlet will be clamouring to get into the tub. <a href="http://www.marshallscanada.ca/en/index.asp">Infant rubber tub toys, $12.99, Marshalls</a>.
For the book lovers in your life — or even the students in need of some prettiness for studying — a customizable bookmark is great to tuck in with their gifts. <a href="http://www.potterybarn.com/products/tassled-metal-bookmark/?pkey=e%7Cbookmark%7C1%7Cbest%7C0%7C1%7C24%7C%7C1&cm_src=PRODUCTSEARCH||NoFacet-_-NoFacet-_-NoMerchRules-_-">Engravable bookmark, $9, Pottery Barn</a>.
Celebrity chef Mario Batali has created this stovetop machine for those who want to have their own cup of espresso at home. <a href="http://www.kitchenstuffplus.com/10348-Mario-Batali-Stovetop-Espresso-Maker.aspx">Mario Batali Stovetop Espresso Maker, $10, Kitchen Stuff Plus.</a>
Suitable for both the kitty and puppy in your life, these bowls are easy to remove for feeding and dishwasher safe. <a href="http://www.petsmart.com/product/index.jsp?productId=12836627&f=PAD%2FpsNotAvailInUS%2FNo">Platinum Pets Cat Double Diner, $20, PetSmart.</a>
The perfect accessory for anyone who loves maps or tiny print (or heck, just wants to look cool), this weighty magnifying glass is a gorgeous office supply addition. <a href="http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/gifts/Flip-Handle-Magnifying-Glass-Nickel/882709071532-item.html?ikwid=magnifying+glass&ikwsec=Home">Flip handle magnifying glass, $19.50, Indigo</a>.
Oh yes, that superhero-loving friend of yours will be proud to display this on their desk. <a href="http://www.futureshop.ca/en-CA/product/dc-comics-dc-comics-batman-vinyl-figure-2201/10167927.aspx?path=acae92a91f584d360cbf76f38ce3a388en02">DC Comics Batman Vinyl Figure, $14.99, Future Shop</a>.
A handy pouch that's more durable than it looks, this nylon case can carry your tablet, along with your phone and some money, for the minimalists in your life. <a href="http://www.gap.com/browse/product.do?pid=246274&locale=en_US&kwid=1&sem=false&sdReferer=http%3A%2F%2F">Nylon tablet case, $19.94, Gap</a>.
You know that weird skin that develops on dips and sauces after it sits out for a while? Well, this mini food warmer will ensure that doesn't happen — and that your host's spinach dip will be forever delicious. <a href="http://hamiltonbeach.ca/hb_detail.php?item=33101">Party Dipper Food Warmer, $14.99, Hamilton Beach</a>.
For the accident prone people in your life who can't help but buy nice things anyway, this case will be a protector, and yes, even a prop. <a href="http://www.bestbuy.ca/en-CA/product/ideal-case-ideal-case-bullet-iphone-5-case-id1853wht-white-id1853wht/10221740.aspx">Ideal Case Bullet iPhone 5 Case, $19.99, Best Buy</a>.
Follow Jason Tetro on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JATetro