12/09/2012 11:55 EST | Updated 02/08/2013 05:12 EST

This Christmas, Give a Holiday Germ Card


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.

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