Each of us have as many as 30 trillion bacteria living in and on our bodies. These bacteria, most of which live in our digestive systems, are part of a system called the human microbiome. Most of these bacteria are harmless or even beneficial. However, some have been implicated in diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Recent technological advances are enabling scientists to explore the human microbiome in detail for the first time. As scientists gain a better understanding of the role of human microbiome in the development of disease, they will be able to find and create better diagnoses and treatments.
To better understand the roles played by the various bacteria in the human microbiome, scientists need to study the proteins produced by these bacteria, which are encoded in their genomes. The first step is to determine the physical structures (shapes) of the protein molecules coded by each bacteria’s genes. This is important because the physical structure of a protein determines its function.
Once the protein functions are determined, scientists can explore how the bacterial proteins react with each other, and determine which proteins play a role in any number of diseases. From these insights, scientists would be able to develop drugs to control those particular proteins and help treat diseases that originate in or are influenced by the human microbiome.
The scale of this research is enormous: the microbiome is comprised of about 3 million unique bacterial genes. By comparison, the human body has about 20,000 genes. To study the proteins corresponding to each of these genes would be a monumental task that is nearly impossible in a laboratory setting. Most of these proteins have therefore not been explored.
While using traditional laboratory techniques is infeasible for the scale of the problem, computational methods can also be used to predict the protein structures. However, doing this at scale requires significantly more computational power than is typically available to scientists. World Community Grid addresses this need by harnessing computing power donated by volunteers from all over the world.
The Microbiome Immunity Project is using the power of World Community Grid to accelerate this initial step of predicting protein structures of the human microbiome. Specifically, World Community Grid volunteers are using their computers’ unused processing power to run millions of virtual experiments, each predicting the structure of a protein.
The resulting data will be analyzed by the researchers to find the most likely structure for each of the proteins under study. The research team will make their data publicly available to other scientists, accelerating the advancement of scientific knowledge in this important new area of research.
The project is initially focusing on the genes found in the microbiome of the human gut, and on diseases which have already been shown to be associated with gut bacteria including type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
The help of World Community Grid volunteers and the massive amount of aggregated computation power they bring to the Microbiome Immunity Project will greatly advance this exciting area of research.