International effort to study role of body microbes in human health and disease

23 October 2008

Scientists from around the globe, meeting last week in Heidelberg, Germany, formed the International Human Microbiome Consortium (IHMC), which will co-ordinate research to characterize the relationship of the human microbiome in the maintenance of health and in disease.

The human microbiome is the collective genomes of all microorganisms living in or on the human body. These microorganisms are suspected of having a role in a wide range of human diseases such as diabetes, asthma, obesity and digestive disorders.

The IHMC will generate a shared data resource from international projects that will be made freely available to the global scientific community. Research organizations from all nations supporting similar research efforts are invited to become participants.

In related news, leaders from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, signed a letter of intent in September with the European Commission (EC) officially agreeing to combine the data from the NIH Human Microbiome Project and the EC Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract (MetaHIT) project. Both projects, which are already under way, will contribute an initial set of microbial genomes to the IHMC.

Current participants in the IHMP include:

  • Australia: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization;
  • Canada: Canadian Institute of Health Research and Genome Canada;
  • China: Ministry Of Science and Technology
  • Europe: European Commission; and
  • United States: National Institutes of Health.

The IHMC will be guided by a steering committee made up of one representative from each country’s research funding agency, as well as a representative from each scientific project. The steering committee is charged with maintaining standards related to quality assurance of data, coordination of microbial strains for complete genome sequencing projects, data access and release and informed consent, in addition to other issues which need the committee’s input.

The IHMC is open for membership from any researchers who agree to the consortium’s principles, which include:

  • open, free and rapid data release in accordance with donor consent forms;
  • common quality standards for data;
  • sharing of protocols and informed consent documents;
  • sharing of information about progress of each project; and
  • a common publication policy.

Trillions of microorganisms live in and on the human body. Scientists have recently begun sequencing the DNA of microbial communities to learn how microbes can help maintain our health or contribute to disease. For instance, research has suggested that fluctuations in the composition of microbial communities contribute to diabetes, asthma, obesity and a variety of digestive disorders.

Each participating research group plans to focus on describing different body sites and diseases, while the US and EC will also contribute to a reference set of completely sequenced microbial genomes.

Data generated by IHMC projects will be made available through the NIH Human Microbiome Project Data Analysis and Coordination Center, led by Owen White, PhD, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore and an equivalent center at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), led by Peer Bork, PhD.

The data will also be distributed to other public databases, including those supported by the National Center for Biotechnology Information ( ), part of the US National Library of Medicine.

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