Ancestral Microbiome: Chasing Health
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What is a healthy gut microbiome? The question seems simple enough - but why haven't researchers been able to tell us what microbes we need and how and where we might get them - or how we might catch them. Join us on this important journey to find out. More ...

Since the summer of 2013, my colleagues and I have been working and living among the Hadza hunter foragers of Tanzania. As the last hunter forager group in Tanzania - who literally still hunt the same animals and gather the same plants that our ancestors did for millions of years - the Hadza may hold in their guts some important clues to what a healthy or optimal gut microbiome might look like at different stages of life.

By collecting stool samples from hundreds of Hadza as they shift between seasonal resources - and freezing them in liquid nitrogen in the field - we use next generation sequencing to map composition of microbes in the Hadza gut. With this information - along with detailed diet and lifestyle data - we can compare this ancestral microbiome to thousands of westerners in the American Gut Project - the largest open source and crowd funded science project in the world (a project I co-founded).

Even though we've raised money for the Hadza project - and received mountains of free sequencing via our colleagues at the Earth Microbiome Project - we need more funds to continue our field work.

What we've accomplished and learned so far and what else needs to be done:

Accomplished and Learned

  • Collected and sequenced ~1,500 fecal, skin, water, soil, animal and plant samples from "Hadza Land" over the course of two field sessions (2013-2015). This represents the largest number of samples ever sequenced for a rural or ancestral population anywhere in the world.
  • Acquired and outfitted a 4x4 Land Cruiser for rough and rugged landscape of East Africa (and cobbled together tents, tables, chairs, satellite dish for internet, and so on for our base camp).
  • Trained two Tanzanian field assistants - ongoing process.
  • Put together a world-class team of researchers - who are mentioned in this 3-page feature about our project that appeared in the prestigious journal  Science - from New York University, Stanford, UCSD, and researchers from the National Institute of Medical Research in Tanzania to collaborate on the analysis.
  • Applied for and acquired all necassary permits and ethical clearances (IRB) for the study in Tanzania and the U.S. Not any easy task given the layers and layers of bureaucracy!
  • Though we haven't published any of our data yet (coming 2016), we are excited that we have documented a seasonal shift in the Hadza gut microbiome between dry and wet season. This is critical as it goes to the heart of what an optimal or balanced gut microbiome might look - in other words, it may be a moving target if evolution is our guide. We also see differences between men and women, something we don't see in western societies. We also see much greater diversity of microbes on and in the Hadza when compared to us westerners. Mounting research suggests this diversity may be our ancestral state and protective! We also don't see a drop in the diversity as Hadza age - something that happens in western populations. We also see an extraordinary diversity of microbes in the Hadza environment as a result of our environmental sampling of plants, animals, soil, water and so on. This "meta community" of microbes is the source pool for Hadza microbes. We also see interesting patterns in the breastfed babies not seen in the western babies. And the list goes on!

What Needs To Be Done - WE NEED YOUR HELP

  • Based on our initial sampling and data, we will be submitting our results for peer-review publication in 2016. This is where you come in! We need funds for diesel, fuel, beans and rice, supplies, salaries for Tanzanian research assistants, and never-ending repairs to our aging field vehicle. Every nickel counts!
  • Now that we have sampled a large number of Hadza across multiple seasons and bush camps, we are now focusing on following a much smaller group of Hadza for detailed longitidunal sampling (we are also very, very interested in detailed sampling of newborns, essentially sampling them from birth through introduction of first solids at 4-6 months). In addition, we want to expand our data set of environmental samples from plants and animals in Hadza land as this is critical to understanding where and how a "free-living" human population acquires microbes from the environment.

If you would like to consider an "off line" donation please send us an email to discuss (jeff AT humanfoodproject DOT com)

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