A "me-search" lab for University of Michigan biology undergraduates gives students a close look at what might be the most compelling study subject of all: themselves.

The lab focuses on the human gut microbiome — bacteria and other tiny organisms that live inside the human digestive system.

Naturally, the course syllabus includes stool samples. By dry weight, excrement is 40 percent microbes. Some of them harm us, but the vast majority of microbes live in our digestive system and help us process food, overcome allergies and generally maintain our health.

Using a protocol involving waxed paper, a Popsicle stick and several flushes, students in the new introductory biology lab are researching the contents of their very own gut microbiome.

The students extract DNA from their fecal samples and sequence the species of their gut microbial community. They also link the DNA information to data about themselves: height, weight, gender, daily diet and other relevant stats.

They use those data to test hypotheses about how their gut microbiome affects their health: Does the microbial community differ between lean students and students with higher body mass indexes? Students who were breastfed and those raised on baby formula? Students delivered by cesarean sections and those by natural births?

The syllabus steers away from more traditional "cookbook" lab courses, in which correct, expected outcomes are easy to grade.

"We want students to see the whole process of discovery, from when we don't know the answer to when we get the answer. That's the real excitement of science," said Deborah Goldberg, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who helped establish new Authentic Research Connection lab courses in LSA.

And this alternative hands-on approach will hopefully produce insights about the gut microbiome that can have an impact beyond the classroom. Ideally, the "me-search" of labs like this one will turn outward to improve public health for people around the world.

And faculty across campus, collectively known as the Michigan Microbiome Project, are linking microbes to public health concerns such obesity, mental illness and harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes. Project faculty members include Tom Schmidt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and internal medicine.

Schmidt directs the Center for Microbial Systems and helped spearhead the gut microbiome lab. He said he hopes the work will ultimately allow researchers to manipulate microbial communities so they can improve human health and otherwise understand the world.

Read full story in the University Record

Read more in previous EEB web news from the Michigan Daily