What's In Your Gut? Ask Citizen Science

The American Gut Project is trying to create a better picture of the human "microbiome." Give it some of your info, and they’ll tell you a lot about all the bugs that make up your digestive system and how they’re affecting your health.

As we know from watching ads for probiotic yogurt on TV, stomach-resident microorganisms play a big part in how well we digest food, and how well we feel. Get the balance right, and you can feel like the woman putting strawberry flavor in her mouth, and grinning like sunshine. Get it wrong, and you’re bloated and irregular.

The gut is a complex place. Millions of good and bad bacteria compete for available nutrients, microbes help us to absorb vitamins, and the composition is constantly changing. Antibiotic drugs wipe out beneficial and non-beneficial bacteria indiscriminately, and what’s in our guts is affected by the types of food we eat, and other demographic and lifestyle factors.

Understanding the role of these variables is the key point of the American Gut Project, a citizen science project that has raised nearly $400,000 since last November, and gathered more than 4,000 volunteers so far. It has just completed its second round on Indiegogo, and will start another soon, hoping to reach 20,000 volunteers in all.

The idea is simple: in return for a donation that covers the cost of a self-sampling kit, you get a read-out of what’s in your personal microbiome. The kit is basically a glorified Q-tip that you use to take a small bit of stool. You fill in an extensive survey covering where you live, where you’ve traveled, and what’s in your diet (for example, what percentage of carbohydrate, fat, and protein you eat). Then you send in the sample, and wait for the results. The cheapest test costs $99, and allows you to compare yourself to people with similar, and dissimilar, lifestyles and eating habits. For more money, you can also test other parts of your body, such as the mouth and skin.

Jeff Leach, one of the leaders of the project, explains that research so far into microbiomes has been deep, but not wide. NIH funded the Human Microbiome Project to the tune of $173 million, but it studied only about 250 subjects. "They were all healthy people—average BMI, no diabetes, no high blood pressure—basically not the average American," he says. "We want anyone in America to sign up. It doesn’t matter if you’re a couch-potato or an ultra marathoner, vegan or vegetarian, we want the variability."

In fact, the project, which is based at the University of Colorado, is not limited to Americans, despite the name. About 10% of the volunteers so far have been out of country. And the researchers are not only interested in humans. They want samples from dogs, too. People’s gut may be affected by keeping pets, and the animals are certainly affected by the food they eat.

Leach, who has an anthropology background, hopes to use the American Gut data to study differences between humans from the developed world and less industrialized countries. This summer, he’s traveling to Tanzania to study the microbiomes of hunter-gatherers. "We’ll be able to compare people from America with people who are still foraging and don’t take antibiotics, eat McDonald’s, or drink tequila," he says.

Eventually, the aim is to help people understand not only what’s a healthy diet and lifestyle in a generalized sense, but what’s a healthy diet and lifestyle for them. Without a large group of citizens gathering online, answering that question would be a lot more difficult.

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  • DottieParker

    For ease of research, here are the six available threads explaining some of Mr. Leach's earlier fraudulent activities.


    It would also be worth looking into the money he raised for a search for
    the remains of Amelia Earhart- a search that as far as I can tell,
    never happened, despite him receiving attention from Wired and others
    and funding from a very well connected backer.


    As far as what happened with NakedPizza- research the early articles written about the company, and then look at how many stores closed. It is especially worth paying attention to the Arizona development, which Mr. Leach personally oversaw with his assistant turned lover. All of those stores are now closed.

    The common thread in all of these failures is Jeff Leach. For 20 years now, the man has been raising money for things that never happen or that fail because of his abusive personality and temper. This project WILL be another in the long list of fraud and failures committed by this individual, it's just a matter of how soon it all falls apart.

  • DottieParker

    Jeff Leach is an abusive con artist who leaves a trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes. He also completely lacks a formal education- he does not have a college degree nor any sort of graduate degree. He's been convicted of larceny in El Paso, Texas, and he also stole money from people in Silver City, New Mexico. The reason he is no longer with the company he founded, NakedPizza, is because he completely derailed the whole thing- started an affair with a young assistant in the company, promoted her to a Director of Operations role, and the two of them destroyed it from the inside out.

    There's a reason that the chain that had signed over 300 deals now has only just over a dozen stores.

    Reporters that don't do their research on Mr. Leach enable him to keep on conning and hurting innocent people. I would encourage anyone who intends to promote Human Gut Project to make a thorough investigation of Mr. Leach's background before doing so.

  • DottieParker

     Natasha, I am Mr. Leach's former executive assistant, and my partner is one of Mr. Leach's former business partners so most of this I witnessed first hand. As far as his past behavior goes, I did a background check on him when things went south. You can also learn more about his past activities by googling "Jeff Leach, Egypt Revealed" and reading a very old comment thread about his actions selling phony magazine subscriptions to a magazine that was never published and booking tours to Egypt that never happened and keeping the money.

    I'm happy to provide the results of the background check I ran to anyone who would like to see them.

    Honestly, if I had my way, I'd never have to hear his name again. I don't like coming into threads like this and saying anything, but I also really don't want to see him get away with starting over and hurting more people in the process.