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When we think about the human body playing host to many non-human cells, particularly bacteria and yeast, perhaps some people’s “ick” response is understandable.

And yet –as anyone who has sought out and consumed bacteria-added yogurt can attest, some of these bacteria within our bodies are good for us. There’s strong and growing interest in the human microbiome. The human microbiome is the collection of nucleic acids from those non-human cells that make themselves home in the body, including bacteria, fungi, yeast and ancient single-celled organisms called archaea. Consumers are particularly focused those microorganisms that live in the gastrointestinal tracts. Who hasn’t heard about or added to their diet probiotics, which are live microorganisms that can provide a health benefit.

Partnership began nearly four years agoM. Andrea Azcarate-Peril

Researchers have taken an interest—and that’s where ITS Research Computing comes in. Since July 2011, Research Computing has been processing samples prepared and sequenced by the UNC-Chapel Hill Microbiome Core Facility within the School of Medicine. In the early stages of the project, the facility was producing about 30 to 40 gigabytes a month. Now, because of changes in sequencing technology, Research Computing is processing 100 to 120 gigabytes a month.

ITS is supporting research globally

The Microbiome Core Facility, led by M. Andrea Azcarate-Peril, has a vast network of researchers from around the world – including many in Europe—supplying samples for sequencing. Research Computing has processed cystic fibrosis samples from a lab on campus, chicken samples from the United States Department of Agriculture and fecal samples from Vanderbilt University.

The core, with Research Computing as a partner, successfully completed 120 projects between January 2013 and January 2015. Some of those projects had between a dozen and 18 samples while one of her own projects had more than 700 samples, Azcarate-Peril said.

The UNC Microbiome Core Facility was established to provide technical and research support to study community structure and function of host-associated microbial populations.

Jeff Roach, ITS Research ComputingKillDevil used for processing samples

“This will be ongoing work for us,” said Jeff Roach, Senior Scientific Research Associate at Research Computing.

Originally Research Computing processed these samples on Kure, ITS’ older research computing cluster, but Research Computing moved the work over to the KillDevil cluster in April 2014.

Opportunity to participate in ground-breaking research

“This is a good opportunity for us because we’re getting in at an early stage,” Roach said. Research Computing usually isn’t enlisted for projects that are still in the early stages of big scientific research trends. This, Roach said, is “something that could become very big.”

“The activities and research program of the Microbiome Core Facility,” the core’s website explains, “impact our understanding of the human-associated microbiota and its role in diseases profoundly affecting our society today, including Crohn’s disease, colorectal cancer, cystic fibrosis and diabetes, and will be directly translated into better patient care and prevention programs.”

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