(Inside Science) -- Imagine if you had an extra organ with 10 times as many cells as the rest of your body, and that organ affected everything from your digestion to your mood. It turns out you do have something like that, and it's made up of all the tiny life forms that live in your body's nooks and crannies.
"The microbiome is a collection of organisms on and inside our bodies that are too small to see except with a microscope. So, we're talking about mostly bacteria but there's a bunch of other stuff in there, like viruses, like fungi, and all kinds of other things too,” said Rob Knight, co-founder of the American Gut Project.
“Your microbiome weighs about as much as your brain does -- you're talking about a couple of pounds of material. And it certainly has more cells, way more genes, arguably as much complexity as your brain. And we're just starting to understand the far-reaching effects that it has on the rest of your body,” said Knight.
To learn more about the microbiome, a citizen science project called the American Gut Project was launched.
"The reason I started American Gut was to give anyone the opportunity that I have, as someone who's running a research lab, to sequence my own microbiome and understand it and understand myself better. And I've been sequencing my own microbiome every day for about the last eight years,” said Knight.
Members of the public can send in their own fecal samples, along with information about their lifestyle. They then get to see what kind of microbes live in their guts, and the data are made available to researchers and other participants.
"At this point, over 10,000 people have already been interested enough to send in a sample,” said Knight.
People shouldn't go to the American Gut Project for medical advice, because the research on health and the microbiome is still in early stages. Instead, people should participate if they’re curious about the living things inside them, and if they want to be part of cutting-edge science.
"The more you know about your microbiome, the more you'll understand how it changes as you do different things, as you meet different people, as you bring different animals into your home, for example, [or] as you change your diet and exercise. There's a tremendous amount of information in there that we're just literally flushing down the toilet right now,” concluded Knight.