World Community Grid

Gaining New Understanding of Human Disease from the Bacteria Inside Us

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What if you could help researchers learn more about how the bacteria in and on our bodies play a role in diseases such as Type 1 diabetes? This is the goal of the newly launched Microbiome Immunity Project. In the article below, the project’s principal investigators – Dr. Rob Knight, Dr. Ramnik Xavier, and Dr. Rich Bonneau – explain the importance of this first of its kind, large-scale, comprehensive study of the bacteria within the human microbiome.

The human microbiome is a collection of all of the microbes — including bacteria — that live inside our bodies and all of the genes that they have. Scientists have found that we each have as many as 30 trillion bacteria in our own microbiome, and most of them live in our gut. The bacteria in the microbiome are usually beneficial to humans. They can even be essential to our health. However, some are linked to diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. These diseases are becoming more common all over the world.

The short answer: scientists don’t know exactly how the microbiome influences the beginning and development of disease, but they know that it plays an important role. That’s why our group – consisting of researchers from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, University of California San Diego, and the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute – is partnering with IBM’s World Community Grid on the Microbiome Immunity Project. The project’s goal is to study all the proteins (the building blocks of organisms) of the human microbiome, so that we and other researchers have a strong foundation to address these diseases.

Medical illustration of virus cells close up

No one has ever studied the human microbiome on this scale before. Researchers have studied individual bacteria and specific proteins in the microbiome, but never all the proteins that are made by all the different bacteria. When you have trillions of bacteria to study in the gut alone, this becomes a monumental task.

Our research group, like most research organizations, does not have anywhere near the amount of computing power needed to take on such a task on our own. That’s why we’re enlisting the help of volunteers from all over the world to support our Microbiome Immunity Project. Together, World Community Grid volunteers provide researchers like us with the enormous computing power we need to carry out studies that would not otherwise be possible.

Here’s how it works: As a World Community Grid volunteer, you download a secure software program to your computer. And when your computer has any unused processing power, it will run a simulated experiment for us in the background. As we receive the results of these simulations, we’ll analyze the data to find the most likely structure for each of the proteins in the microbiome. This will help us understand the role of these proteins and therefore allow us to unlock new strategies for treating diseases impacted by the microbiome.

With thousands of volunteers running millions of simulations, we can get this crucial work done in just a few years, instead of decades. And in keeping with World Community Grid’s open data policy, we’re committed to making the data publicly available to other scientists, which will help accelerate the advancement of scientific knowledge in this important area of research.

The more volunteers we have for this project, the more quickly we can get this done! We hope you’ll join us!

Dr. Rob Knight is Professor at the Departments of Pediatrics and Computer Science & Engineering; and Director at the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego.

Dr. Ramnik Xavier is Chief, Gastrointestinal Unit and Director, Center for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease at the Massachusetts General Hospital; Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; Institute Member and Co-Director of the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; and Co-Director, Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics at MIT.

Dr. Rich Bonneau is Professor of Biology, Computer Science; Faculty Director of Bioinformatics at New York University (NYU); and Group Leader for Systems Biology, Center for Computational Biology at the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute.

Related Resources:

Your Computer Can Help Scientists Study Connection Between Body Bacteria and Autoimmune Diseases

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