Last updated July 18, 2018 at 1:56 pm
Business looks to access new understanding of our microbiome’s effects on health.
A smear of poo from your toilet paper is all you need to take advantage of a new venture, the first to offer metagenomic testing direct to the public.
The Brisbane-based company Microba, founded by University of Queensland researchers Philip Hugenholtz and Gene Tyson, and with Australian science luminary Ian Frazer as its director, hopes its test will be the new gold standard in faecal analysis.
The market for such a test could be huge. Nearly half of all Australians have digestive complaints, and an explosion in studies on gut microbes – our microbiome – has seen it increasingly linked to an array of digestive and other health conditions.
Poo testing is nothing new. Pathologists regularly test for a select menu of nasties such as diarrhoea-inducing Salmonella by growing them in the lab. And a handful of other companies, both in Australia and overseas, conduct more comprehensive surveys of the gut’s microbial communities by homing in on a single gene – the 16S rRNA gene – that is used as a type of genetic fingerprint to identify which bacteria are present.
While 16S sequencing has been the microbiologist’s workhorse for unveiling the complexities of the body’s microbiome, it has its limitations. The biggest, in the eyes of Microba CEO Blake Wills, is that it lacks resolution.
Related bacterial species often can’t be differentiated, so you’d know you’ve got a bear, but not whether it’s a polar bear or a grizzly.
Microba bases its services on metagenomic sequencing. Instead of fishing out and sequencing a single gene from as many community members as possible, metagenomics gives a read-out of all genetic sequences present.
“It provides a much higher level of resolution – species level resolution – of microorganisms,” says Wills.
The analysis tells you not just who’s there, but what they’re doing. Are there genes for making essential vitamins? For breaking down carbohydrates?
Armed with this information, Microba have the lofty goal of providing customers with personalised dietary advice to turbo-charge growth of known beneficial bugs.
How specific and useful that advice is could well depend on how many of Microba’s customers take up the option of having their data anonymously added to Microba’s database, a database Wills hopes will quickly become “the largest metagenomic dataset of gut microbiome available.”
Meanwhile, the company is also partnering with researchers, pathologists and pharmaceutical companies to conduct microbiome analyses, and also has a research program of its own to develop live ‘biotherapeutics’.