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Machines Like Us

Scientists map bacteria living inside us

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A consortium of scientists has nearly completed cataloguing the 10,000 microbial species living on and in the normal human body, potentially paving the way for research that could illuminate our understanding of how disease may be linked to changes in our bacterial make-up.

Just as the Human Genome Project in 2001 mapped out every gene that makes us human, the Human Microbiome Project seeks to discover all the invisible, non-human bugs that inhabit just about every part of us — from the skin to the gut and up the nose.

Lila Proctor, program director at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the co-ordinator for the project, said the work began five years ago, after a call from the research community to map "other" genomes — "a quick way of describing the microbes."

The NIH poured $154 million US into the project.

"We’ve known for a long time that we have many kinds of microbes that live in and on our bodies, but it was really daunting to even imagine trying to do this work 10 years ago when the genome was being done," she said.

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