Microbiomics for Everyone from “Gut Check: Exploring your Microbiome”

Gut microbiome from Scientific American

Scientific American image

For all the microbiome scientists, aficionados, and dabblers out there, I would highly recommend “Gut Check: Exploring your Microbiome” on Coursera. Developed and presented by American Gut researchers Dr Rob Knight, Dr Jessica Metcalf, and Dr Katherine Amato, the six module course opens with, “What are microbes?” and continues through the development of and applications of microbiomics. The course covers all the usual uses of microbiome data for health, such as autoimmune disease and obesity research, but also stretches into less widely known applications like forensics. The liberal incorporation of interviews with field experts gives the course vitality and lots of directions for “independent study”. (Speaking of independent study, I would suggest Jeff Leach’s engaging and blunt blog posts for his The Human Food Project here.)

“Gut Check” is perhaps more academic than necessary in presentation style, a little more animation from the presenters would have been appreciated, and many of the slide deck snippets from the interviewees are above the level of a general audience; but the beauty of an on-line course is the ability to pause, fast forward, and skip at will.

The data analysis-heavy nature of several of the modules may surprise some students. Microbiomics is not just cool bugs but is actually a big data field. We must make sense of the deluge of data pouring out of the sequencers to unlock the health and wellness potential of our bacterial ecology. The sections are presented in simple terms with plenty of visual aids (and generous use of Giant Microbes) so invest the time in these modules.

Michael Pollan's American Gut DataWeek 6 focuses on the American Gut project and walks you through the process of participating, which is much more fun than an instruction sheet. They also guide you through interpreting the data you receive, including how to compare yourself to Michael Pollan. I don’t know if American Gut is suggesting he is a super-human prototype, but it is a fabulous idea that everyone gets to see how he or she stacks up against the famously omnivorous author.

If after joining the American Gut Project and acing Gut Check you still want more microbiome, check out Bik’s Picks: MicrobiomeDigest for a clearinghouse of microbiome news and research. TED has several excellent talks such as those from Jonathan Eisen, Joe DiRisi (infectious disease detection), Jessica Green, Jeroen Raes, and Rick Stevens.

There is a glut of information out there so happy hunting and remember to feed your gut-brain axis frequently.
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