Microbiome of the Italian Lifestyle
Posted 5th October 2016 by Jane Williams
Whilst completing my industrial PhD in Biotechnology, I focused on the characterisation of microbial communities of dairy products, using Next Generation Sequencing approaches in order to evaluate the quality of cheeses. The shift towards studying the human gut microbiome was quite easy. Unfortunately, at the beginning we found that we couldn’t evaluate the “quality” of the gut flora as it was a relatively under-explored field.
In Italy this kind of research was not common: few universities focused on this topic, such as Bologna and Rome Universities, but the studies didn’t involve many samples, or were mainly focused on a different topic (i.e. the effects of ageing or the Mediterranean diet). In fact, we found that even if there were studies on the human microbiome, many of them exploited different methods, providing different results on the same topic. Therefore, comparing results between studies was a challenge. In our country we didn’t have a reference database for the gut microbiome, so we couldn’t compare good and bad gut microbiomes. Thus, we couldn’t offer a “service” for the analysis and interpretation of its composition: we could only do research.
We began this project in 2015 thanks to the collaboration with Dr. Fabio Piccini, a doctor and researcher from the university of Marche (centre of Italy), who was exploiting the expertise of Ubiome research labs for the analysis of the microbiome of patients with eating disorders (i.e. anorexia or bulimia). We have begun to collaborate with the sequencing provider for its samples while we start to delineate a bigger project: creating an Italian database of the Italian gut microbiome! Inspired by the great American and British gut projects, we set up a citizen science project in which people contribute to the research in return for their results. In Italy, it is quite common to finance research through big funding collections but usually people cannot see any results for many years. We liked this new model of crowd-funded research, we applied it and found that Italians are very very interested in this kind of research. Since September 2015 we have analysed nearly 100 samples!
Thus, that’s what we are exploring: collecting as many samples as possible from Italian people in order to build an open source database and to map the Italian lifestyle with its microbiome, defining a good “quality” gut. We think that “more is better” so this project will keep on collecting samples and we are periodically creating “reports” to explain the news and up-to-date analysis. We’ve set up an online platform through which people can order their own kit for stool sampling and receive their analysis. An online survey must be filled for every sample, thus connecting the microbiome with the health status and lifestyle of the individual. Researchers from all over the world will be able to access it and take advantage of it.
We’ve just started to collaborate with some doctors and universities, such as the University of Verona and Prof. of Bioinformatics Nicola Vitulo; Rome – Dr. Irina Poleva; Vicenza – Dr. Antonella Merlini for samples collection; but we’re working to create new connections with research centres and possibly with the other international projects, such as British Gut and American Gut. Networking will be the strength of our project and involving the entire population of our country will provide the deepest insight within this hyper-variable hot topic. For now we are not focusing on a specific disease, but we are moving towards a study on diabetes within a year with the University of Verona.
When this research has a stable basis of knowledge, microbiome analysis will become a standard test for the diagnosis of gut dysbiosis and some diseases, or it can become a great resource for marker discovery. Our aim is to develop a home-service to help Italian people to monitor their health and eventually improve it. In this way we want to turn scientific knowledge into real advantages for Italian people and contribute to a better worldwide understanding of this micro-macro-world.
Eleonora Sattin has just completed her industrial PhD in Biotechnology at BMR Genomics, a spin-off of the University of Padua and sequencing provider.
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