New Yale-led project looks at the microbiome-social network connection

Professor Nicholas Christakis will head an international project that examines the intersections of human genomic, microbiome, and social network data.
Nicholas Christakis
Nicholas Christakis

Nicholas Christakis, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, will lead a new project that explores the relationship between face-to-face social networks and the human microbiome.

The Microbiome Biology and Social Networks in the Developing World project, which began Jan. 1 and will continue through December 2022, is funded by a $3.54 million grant from the Zurich-based NOMIS Foundation. Collaborators on the project include Edo Airoldi of Temple University and Ilana Brito of Cornell University.

The project will merge human genomic, microbiome, and social network data to examine important relationships among our own genes, the organisms living in our bodies, and our social connections to one another. In addition, conducting this study within an existing research project will enable further inquiry into how these phenomena are related to the socioeconomic and health data of thousands of people within a social network in rural Honduras.

Although bacteria are typically associated with infection, the human gut microbiome — all of the microbial species found in the human digestive tract — plays a crucial role in human life. Humans are dependent on the bacteria that live on and inside them in order to digest food, produce vitamins, regulate the immune system, and provide protection against pathogenic bacteria.

The number of microbial cells in the human body is equal to or greater than the number of human cells, and the total number of genes in the microbiome is at least 200 times greater than the number of genes in the human genome. Yet many of these organisms have yet to be identified, and scientists know relatively little about their role in human health and disease.

The researchers noted that the project aims to add significantly to the current understanding of how the microbiome affects and is affected by human social connections by exploring how the microbiota moves across social network connections and how that spread of the symbiotic microbial environment affects humans. The researchers said it is possible that some diseases previously thought to be noncommunicable, such as obesity, atherosclerosis, diabetes, or depression, might, in some cases, be contagious via social networks.

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