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by Kunal K February 09, 2013 17 min read

On our Biohack Your Life Conference visit to San Francisco we were lucky enough to come across a very innovative company called uBiome who are sequencing the human microbiome. What 23&me did for DNA, uBiome are doing for the microbiome. I caught up with one of the founders / CEO Jessica Richman for a 20 minute discussion to learn more about the service and how we can access it in Australia.
Note: uBiome was shut down in May 2019. There are however, alternative microbiome sequencing options available. In Australia, check out Microba, i-Screen and SmartGut.
This is our first ever podcast, so if the sound quality isn't the best, there's also the transcript available below :)



Kunal: Okay, good morning everyone. We’re here with Jessica Richman today, the CEO of uBiome....Hi, Jessica!

Jessica Richman: Yea! Hello! Thanks for having me on this, it’s really exciting.

Kunal: Yeah, really great that you made the time for us today. Can you tell us a little bit about uBiome? What is it that you do?

Jessica Richman: Sure, so uBiome is a citizen science project to sequence the human microbiome. So what we do is we allow the public to send in their samples, of their microbiome. we have kits designed for that purpose...and we send out the sampling kits to people and they send them back to us. We sequence the data about the microbiomes and then allow people to ask and answer questions about their own microbiomes and you also have the option of adding to our data set to be a part of Citizens Science.

So, a lot of people don’t know what a microbiome is, so I should probably stop and say that the microbiome are the bacteria that live on and within all of us. Advances in DNA sequencing technology made it possible for us to see what’s all over us that we were previously not able to see. We’re just our, most of our bodies are bacteria on a cell-count base.  90% of the cells in our body are bacterial cells, not human cells.

Kunal: Interesting fact: The body contains 10 times more bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms than human cells.

Jessica Richman: Yea, it’s really fascinating actually. Bacteria are responsible for all sorts of things that are necessary in life: Synthesizing vitamins, helping us digest food,  they’re also known to be helpful antibiotics to us, but they also are some indicators of what’s going on with us.

Example: It’s sort of like, if you want to find out how a tree is doing in a forest you can look at the moss growing on the tree. So we’re kind of the tree and they're the moss growing on us and by looking at what’s growing there and how well it’s doing, and how many there are we can start to understand what’s going on in the person that has those bacteria. And so this is more than just academic interest because in a lot of people the microbiome has been correlated with all sorts of conditions. Everything from the obvious which would be things that are digestion related like, diabetes,  irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, it’s also been correlated with some things that might not be so obvious; like  anxiety and depression.

Kunal: Well there’s that whole brain-immuno-gut connection, right?

Jessica Richman: Exactly! And we’ve all been taught this medical model of the world where all these different systems are managed by different doctors that don’t talk to each other and then we sort of assume that is the way that you know, that's the body segmented into the different things and what we’re learning is that things are happening that are not so far removed from each other...and things are happening in the mind. Especially since this is conjecture and there have been some studies that hint at this: The idea that because bacteria are making a lot of the small molecules that are in our blood, maybe that’s how the brain-gut connection happen. That they are making these molecules that then circulating our blood or our brain and includes our thinking.

Kunal: Okay, and that’s a question that your project, uBiome, may be able to answer?

Jessica Richman: Well, you know we never say we will be able to answer it because that’s a hypothesis of about how something works. So we cannot say “Oh, we will prove that hypothesis true or false.” But maybe we’ll be able to show some correlations that may give us the basis for further study, or just make it more clear what’s going on with different types of mental or physical conditions.

Kunal: Okay, great. So what are the three main reasons someone would actually be use one of your test kits?

Jessica Richman: I think there are a few different motivations that people have. And I think the number one of the early adopters who are interested in our project at this point are people who are just into science, who just have this urge to see what’s going on inside of them. There is currently no other way to look at your microbiome - the average person to have access to this type of technology to look at to see what’s going on with the micro biomes. There is this curiosity in like advanced science and that’s sort of the altruistic motive, that’s the first reason I think

I think that the second reason would be to answer pressing questions about your health in one way or another. So people that have some condition that is not very well understood by medicine like uh, irritable bowel, or allergies or other things like that can do this test and perhaps gather some of that information. I want to say up front, this is not a medical test, it’s not diagnostic, it’s purely informational, but if you’re kind of at your wits end about something and you want to try different things to see if there is any more information that can be helpful this is something that can definitely add to the mix. The same thing is true if you have a very specific diet that you’re trying or something that you are very passionate about; like you know you have a gluten free diet or a certain version of paleo. You can sort of see how your microbiome is affected by different things that you try.

The third thing I think is that we’re beginning to see research about specific conditions and if you have one of those...for example,  research on bowel conditions are pretty substantial and if you have one of those tests, you can definitely look at where you are and then read studies about it and then talk to your gastro anthologist about it and you can round out the picture on what’s going on with that kind of condition.

Kunal: That’s very useful stuff, I can definitely relate to that. I was actually in Japan on a University Exchange program a few years ago and I actually ended up in the hospital for a couple of weeks because I was just having too much of a good time as an exchange student (laughter), .

Jessica Richman: (laughter) that’s a good trip - going to the hospital

Kunal: Yeah, well it makes a good story, that’s for sure. , so what happened is, I ended up in the hospital and you know, once I got out of the hospital there were a few months where I was still out of sorts - especially every time I ate something. And looking back I would have to put it down to the antibiotics and medication that was being pumped into my system. And also the food that I was being fed at the hospital as well, I mean, me being a foreigner in Japan, I think that they decided that the local cuisine wouldn’t be palatable to me or something, so they gave me bread and jam pretty much every day. (Laughter) Yeah, you know like white bread kind of thing so you know now with my understanding of gluten and wheat and grain...combination probably didn’t do me any good.

Jessica Richman: No, that is just really… yea… that is pretty awful. There's actually been studies in older people in nursing homes about the types of diets they’re being fed and the effect on their microbiomes versus older people who are not in nursing homes . Yea the traditional diet of like you know jello and piles of mystery meat or jams, that institutional diet is not really good for people. (laughter)

Kunal: Yeah, I think the same person who put together the food pyramid probably put together the hospital diet, ey?

Jessica Richman: (laughter) exactly, yea. You have a very good point though about antibiotics - There have been some interesting studies where they that your microbiome is different after 2 years[1] which shows the brain-gut-immuno connectionThey profiled a group beforehand, then have you take antibiotics and then one month after, six months after, two years after and then they still haven’t recovered the full diversity of what you had after all of that. So you can't say it made you feel sick or you know that was the cause of it, but you can definitely see that in some studies there has been some correlation of those things.  

[1] Moving Pictures of the Human Microbiome

Incomplete Recovery of the Gut Microbiome after Antibiotic Therapy in Infants

Kunal: Well, it’s scary and it’s also fascinating at the same time and it’s great that we can understand it at a higher level now.

Jessica Richman: Yea, I think so too. This is like; I love the idea of bringing this technology directly to the public. I feel like it’s just an idea of this time has come and not just us doing this, but the whole concept of bringing the public involved into science and you know, allowing people to see things they otherwise would not be able to see.

Kunal: Okay, listen. So, why would someone next to you use a uBiome kit? Rather than doing something similar at the local clinic?
Jessica Richman: Well this type of test is not offered basically anywhere else in the world. tThis is done as research science and you can belong to, you can be a part of the study and things like that. But this particular micro biomes you know, secrets and test I don’t think it’s offered. , there are tests that, there are specific tests that are you know are certain parasites, that are specific tests of kinds. But this is sort of the, this testing, sequencing the micro biomes and then relating it to a larger data set of uh other people doing the same thing. That have extensive surveys about their health issues – it’s just the new thing to do. So, , we hope that in the future you can just visit your local clinic and everyone will, you know, it’ll be easier to get, it’ll be sort of like this is not sold in stores yet. But  in the future I hope that it will be that easy and you can even go to the next level with this.

Kunal: That’s cool. I’m already sold on it.  I’ve picked up a Quantified uBiome, a triple pack, because I want to monitor progress over a period of time. I think that’s a lot more beneficial just a one-off.

One question that came up to me is like with interpretation of the results once I get them. You know, what am I looking for? Is there an ideal gut-floral mix that they should be aiming for? Is that something that is going to vary person to person?

Jessica Richman: it’s going to vary a lot. So I think that one thing that, uh, there is sort of a paradigm of the way you look at problem as we say these are good bacteria and these are bad bacteria. They’re not good or bad, they’re the same bacteria that can be good in some circumstance and bad in others and good for one thing and not for something else. Something is good, and then it’s not later in a different way. So I think it’s there shouldn’t be one ideal type for everyone and there probably isn’t an idea type for anyone in particular either. I think the idea is more of attract correlations over time and see how you relate to, see how it relates to how you feel, see how it relates to medical conditions you’ve been diagnosed with to things you eat, like it’s sort of putting all of this data together into a more complex picture. So we definitely aren’t going to say, ‘oh, you should, you have too little of this let’s give you more of this’ or something we want instead we’ll be saying that this is your micro biomes strongly correlate to people who eat this kind of diet. Your micro biomes strongly correlate to people who type 2 diabetes, you don’t think you have it, but I don’t know, do you think you have other symptoms that might be something you want to look at.

Kunal: Yea, cool. That would be some useful stuff.

Jessica Richman: Yea, definitely.

Kunal: So is there anything that the tests don’t cover? I think on your podcast with Dave Asprey on the Bulletproof Executive there was menton of the fact that it doesn't actually find parasites or worms or anything like that?

Jessica Richman: Yea, we’re just looking at this point these first pilot we’re only looking at 16s, which is a region of bacterial RNA, that is, will only find bacteria like certain bacteria and a few things that are not bacteria and that range of things that use that, strip of DNA. So what we don’t, so we won’t find organisms that don’t fit that profile. So , I mean it would be great to do deep metagonomic sequencing and find everything that is in there, human DNA, parasites all these things, but that is just a lot more expensive at this point. The cost is dropping and we hope that some point soon and we’ll be able to offer something much more wider. The good thing about what we are finding or the technique that we’re using is that it is a widely used technique in studies because it is less expensive so there is a lot of well-developed bioinformatics about linking things to each other. There are a lot of well-developed techniques that are a lot of referenced studies that we can use.And I think that adds more value to the public.

Kunal: So basically we’re saying no worms at this stage right?

Jessica Richman: No worms! If you think you have worms this isn’t the way to go. (laughter)

Kunal: (laughter) Cool. Okay. So I know like, aside from gut-testing kits, there is also tests for the mouth, skin, nose, and genitals as well. Could you briefly run through why someone would want to test those areas?

Jessica Richman: Yea, so with the mouth, there’s the sort of second most uh studies and most data about that and there is a lot of correlation between the oral micro biome and the more obvious dental tooth cavities in your mouth and , correlations between oral health such as gingivitis and things like that, but there is also , correlations between healthier gums and things such as heart disease. So, we might be able to work… so this is all going into one answer. So if you tell us you have heart disease, we will know whether we are looking at your gut or the mouth so we can find perhaps some other sort of correlations there. Now as for the nose, there has been correlations with chronic sinusitis and other allergies and other issues so, for example we can say sinusitis There is an interesting paper that usually sinusitis is what they causes virus’. Which means that some normal people, people who don’t have sinusitis have a broad range of organisms there. And if you do have sinusitis you just have one, the one that is giving you sinusitis. So there’s definitely a profile there to tell you what’s going on. Whether it’s a … whether it’s chronic sinusitis, so you can sort of like see if the bacterial profile , but you can’t diagnose it obviously but you can see that there have been some clear studies on that we’re like. And genitals is interesting because there is not as much research done on them. The most has been done on STD transmission and between bacterial vaginosis and things like that. But I think it will be interesting to see what we find...again bacterial vaginosis they think is a disbiosis where already you have a bunch of different organisms with pure vaginosis you just have you know that you’re wind organs is reduced and you just have that one that’s splurging.

Kunal: So I was trying to think of about something that was quite relevant to Australians and New Zealanders, and I guess cancer is a common health topic over here. We have according to the World Cancer Research fund the 3rd and 4th highest cancer rates per capita in the world. And prostate, bowel, and skin cancers are the most prevalent types. You mentioned something about like possibly like building a profile it might lead to an early signing, or anything like that. Or is that something that is possible?

Jessica Richman: Well, it’s possible. Like I don’t want to say ‘oh, we’re going to cure cancer’, but we can say we’ll definitely correlate with a cancer in people’s parents’ histories as well in our survey. And that there have been studies from my understanding that does have  is effected by cancer. For example, they were doing something about the stomach , that’s h. pylori is sort of a marker for gastric cancer because it is a bacteria in the stomach that is in the large intestine in advanced cases gastric cancer. Now, I don’t know if that will be useful to people in our study because that might, they already know they have gastric cancer at that point most likely.  But I think it will be interesting to do this study of associating these things to each other, and see what interesting things we find. That’s one of the cool things about this kind of exploratory research, is that the goal of this is not to say ‘you have cancer, we’ve diagnosed you and now you should go get treatment.’ It’s not a diagnostic test. But it is sort of a broad study to say here are these interesting correlations, let’s pursue further research and that’s something you can’t get if you set out to study a particular population that has an x or y disease or cancer.  

Kunal: Okay, so this is so cool because we can crowd source information from everyone from all over the world now, so easily.

Jessica Richman: Yea, exactly. The internet has made this possible. I mean there are so many things made possible. I’m really glad that it’s made things possible , you know, it brings crowd sourcing, or into what is called Citizen Science so that we can really advance the pace a lot faster and it involves people who would never have been involved and I think that’s an especially interesting point in terms of Australia and New Zealand because I know Americans have huge NIH budgets and we’re the most over studied people in the world and the  rest of the world populations don't get studied as much. And I just think that there is a huge lack in our understanding of what’s going on in terms of health research . I’m really glad that we can have people from all over the world to compare them to each other and to study populations that don’t get studied as much as Americans do.

Kunal: Will you guys be publishing the correlations that you find on your website at some point?

Jessica Richman: Ya, you’ll be able to see your own obviously and then we’re going to have you opt in and the data will be available to researchers to use for studies and we hope that people do. I mean I, there’s a use in science in having the public involved and being able to ask them questions. And there’s also advances in research to sort of know what the cutting edge is in the fields that can take this data and use it to move the state of information forward. So, we’d like to do that. We’d definitely like to have researchers, or some sort of research organization and we’d have  people who can use our research and use our data in their research perhaps combined with other research they’re already doing and publish that work.

Kunal: Okay that’s cool, and obviously it’s complete anonymously used data right?

Jessica Richman: Yea, it will be completely anonymous and it’s opt in, so if you don’t want your information to be used for research you don’t have to, but we would like you to, obviously, to use it for research because that would allow the rest of the world to benefit from the data.

Kunal: okay, because we’re sending, I guess, biological material back into the United States for testing. Is that an issue?

Jessica Richman: Yea, so we’ve done a lot of research on this, this is. We were wondering about this obviously and we also uh, you know get a lot questions, a lot of tough questions from anywhere other than the United States is this really going to work? Do you actually send this to us? Do we actually send this to you? The answer is yes. We’ve looked at the regulations really extensively , there, this is not infectious material. It’s not pathogenic bacteria , they are broken down by the time that they get into the tube and then it goes into the mail so this is not , there are rules for packaging liquids and things like that but this does not fall under the rules of packaging dangerous medical, you know, biological samples. Which is good, because , the rules are very honorous, and it’s also good because it allows us to do this on a much greater scale.

Kunal: Okay, that’s good. That was a question a lot of people would have had and it's good to have an answer on it directly from the CEO :)

Jessica Richman: Sure,  I would wonder this too. We have heard , with  23 and me is doing something similar and people have had trouble with their local DHL office or something like that with shipping it. But we will include a copy of the regulations and you can show it to them, and say ‘look section whatever says this is fine and that this is totally legitimate and look how we packaged this and things are all off…’ so , I don’t think there should be a problem with that.

Kunal:  okay, that’s great. Cool. Okay and so if someone wants to get themselves a kit, where do they go?

Jessica Richman: So you go to the website at ubiome.com and then there is a big red button on top that says you can go right into our indiegogo site, or you can just got directly to indiegogo.com/biome.

Kunal: And the campaign ends within the next 10 days or so? Is that right?

Jessica Richman: Yea, I think it’s a 11 more days,  or maybe 10 days and you’re right (laughter) Yea, just a few more days. (February 19th, 2013)

Kunal: Yea we’re in the future :)

Jessica Richman: Yea, well you are in the future! How’s life in the future? :-)

Kunal: Yea, we’re still here :)

Jessica Richman: You’re still there? I’m glad! (laughter)

Kunal: No apocalypse :)

Jessica Richman: , yea so just 10 more days to sign up on the campaign and I would also just like to say a lots of customers in Australia, I haven’t looked at the recent count yet and it’s been weeks since I’ve looked at it. We have dozens, maybe even hundreds from Australia, so it’s been a really great place, and New Zealand added to, so yea, I think quite a few. So, we definitely want to have more people involved because you can even say things on a national level too. Australian, you can say there’s an Australian profile is different than other places so it’s better to have a greater sample from your country.

Kunal: Yea, the more people that hear about this the more people are going to be interested.

Jessica Richman: Yea that would be awesome, maybe there’s going to be like a vegemite profile we can do (laughter). Bad American sense of humor, sorry about that :-)

Kunal: (laughter) Cool. Okay so one thing we have put together for anyone of our OptimOz customers who want to pick up a uBiome testing kit is that they send a private message...(that’s how the system works on Indiegogo, right?)

Jessica: Yeah that’s right,

Kunal: After buying your kit, forward your Indiegogo confirmation email toinfo@optimoz.com.au and we will give you a $10 discount voucher to use on your next OptimOZ.com.au purchase.

Note: The campaign ends on Tuesday 19th so get into that indiegogo campaign and get your testing kit and your OptimOZ voucher before then!

uBiome -- Sequencing Your Microbiome (take 10% off with code OPTIMOZ10)
The World's FIRST citizen science project to sequence the human microbiome. Available INTERNATIONALLY in 196 countries. Gain a whole new perspective on your wellbeing.

Jessica Richman: Yes! Please come join us. It would be really great and really fun for you to participate in. But thank you so much for having me! This was great. I’m really glad to be meet OptimOz’s audience, and if anyone has questions for me they can just email us at info@ubiome.com.

Kunal: Okay. Cool. Thank you Jessica it’s been really, really interesting and fascinating and thanks for making this service so accessible to anyone in the world.

Jessica Richman: We’re hoping to get huge participation and to share it with the whole world. This is really exciting!

To learn more about uBiome or buy a sample kit vist their Indiegogo page

What is a microbiome? Microbiome Infographic (Scientific American, May 2012)

Kunal K
Kunal K

Co-Founder, OptimOZ.com.au

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