The Victorian Oral Microbiome and Lifestyle Study aims to better understand the bacteria that live in our mouths, and how they vary with different lifestyles, diets, and backgrounds.
We are exploring how these bacteria differ depending on where we live (such as different neighbourhoods, and near parks or farms), and how our health behaviours vary (such as dental care, and antibiotic use).
The data will be used to contribute to academic research at the University of Melbourne. The results are also being included in a dynamic visual installation in Melbourne Museum’s Gut Feelings exhibition and online, March 2019 – August 2020.
In 2019 over 1,450 visitors to the Melbourne Museum became co-researchers on the project and volunteered to spit for science! We are currently working on all of the information collected, and will be providing updates here soon. See the Early Findings tab for some of the findings so far.”
We are not currently recruiting for this study, but are working on plans to get out to regional and rural areas to ensure all Victorians have the opportunity to take part. See the Participation tab for more information.
This project is funded by The University of Melbourne, with contributions from the:
- Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences
- Peter Doherty Institute
- Chancellery (Research and Enterprise)
- Melbourne Dental School
This project is supported by:
Recent research has revealed that many bacteria that live within and on the human body (such as in our guts, and mouths and on our skin) can actually play a very important role in how the body functions. We each carry 1 – 2 kgs of microbes! While many bacteria appear harmless, and others can cause disease, there are a lot that provide benefit to us, helping us digest food and producing chemicals important to our health. It seems that humans and other animals, having evolved with bacteria all around us (including in our digestive tracts), have come to rely on bacteria. Importantly, there is now evidence that some illnesses are caused by, or can be made worse by, things going wrong with our on-board friendly bacteria.
Studies specifically examining bacteria and healthy relationships in humans are currently limited. However, evidence supports a complex interaction between bacteria, the environment (e.g., lifestyle), what we eat, and how our bodies work (including immune and hormone function).
Interest in this topic led to the Melbourne Museum and the University of Melbourne working together to establish this project, with an aim to both educate the public and, with your help, learn more about the bacteria that share our lives.
Project data collection will be based at the Melbourne Museum, next to the Gut Feelings exhibition. The Gut Feelings exhibition will run March 2019 – August 2020.
Gut Feelings: Your Mind, Your Microbes.
Stunning displays explore new revelations; that your gut can talk directly to your mind and body via trillions of microorganisms. Meet your helpful gut microbes. Walk amongst these beautiful, dynamic entities in the gut tunnel. How do they affect your thoughts, behaviour and body? How can you love them so they will love you back? Are miraculous poo transplants the future cure-all?
We are not currently recruiting for this study, but are working on plans to get out to regional and rural areas to ensure all Victorians have the opportunity to take part.
If you are part of a rural/regional community and would like to learn more about our trillions of microbes, and to take part, let us know! We are very keen to make our microbe experience mobile for communities outside of Melbourne.
This is an ongoing study, and although over 1,450 have taken part, we have a lot more analysis to do before we can address the key study questions. We also want to ask a lot more people to spit for science and help us explore our microbes!”
Some of our preliminary findings, and a microbe map, can be viewed at the Melbourne Museum and online.
Other preliminary findings include:
- 1,453 people took part in this unique Australian study at the museum
- They ranged in age from 2 years to 81 years of age
- 1172 adults, and 281 children took park
- 1349 (93%) live in Australia
- 445 (~33%) reported speaking a language other than English with their family
- Only 2% reported daily smoking, much lower than the 2017 average of 13.8% (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
- Hours of sleep ranged between 2 and 13 hours, with adults averaging 7.2 hours a night, and those under 18 years 9.6 hours.
- 51% of adults reported not feeling rested after sleep!
- A large proportion of participants had completed higher education, including 46% a bachelor degree or Tafe3-4 certificate/diploma, and 30% a postgraduate degree.
Dietary preferences comprised:
- 68% omnivore,
- 18% flexitarian,
- 5% vegetarian,
- 4% pescatarian,
- 3% vegan,
- 1% other
Tooth brushing comprised:
- 74% twice a day,
- 22% once a day,
- 4% less than once a day
- Only 12% of adult participants reported eating the recommended 5 serves of vegetables (or more) per day
- About 30% of adults reported eating only one (or less) serve(s) of vegetables per day
- Victorian participants reported significantly lower optimism and less life satisfaction than non-Victorian participants
- Is this a ‘holiday effect’ for non-Victorians taking part. Interestingly, it was driven by comparisons to visitors from other Australian states and not overseas visitors.
Below is a figure of the 10 most common genera of bacteria we identified in participants saliva.
Genera (singular genus) are part of the ranking system applied to all living things (plus viruses and fossils), where genus sits below family and above species in ranking.
- For example, lions and tigers are different species, but are classified in the same genus (Panthera). Domestic cats are a different species and genus to their bigger cousins, but are in the same family (Felidae).
|Dr Julian Simmons (Principal Investigator)||Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences | |
Melbourne Medical School
|Professor Nick Haslam||Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences|
|Professor Ben Howden||Peter Doherty Institute|
|Professor Tim Stinear||Peter Doherty Institute|
|Professor Stuart Dashper||Melbourne Dental School|
|Associate Professor Sarah Whittle||Melbourne Medical School|
|Dr Andre Mu||Peter Doherty Institute|
|Dr Catherine Butler||Melbourne Dental School|
|Dr Samantha Byrne||Melbourne Dental School|
|Dr Orli Schwartz||Centre for Youth Mental Health|
|Nicole Isles||Peter Doherty Institute|
|Carra Simpson, PhD candidate||Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences|
|Djamila Eliby, PhD candidate||Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences|
General information about our oral microbiomes
- The mouth is an important gateway to our body. Our mouths are inhabited by around 300 different types of microbes. They make up our oral microbiome.
- The oral microbiome is second only to the lower gut in terms of the number and the different kinds of microbiota. It is made of bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa.
- Humans, like other animals, evolved with these microbes over the millennia, and we have come to rely on each other.
- Microbes love our mouths! The varied surfaces of the mouth, and particularly the presence of teeth, moisture (from saliva) and the food we eat make the mouth a welcoming home. They move in as soon as we are born!
- Microbes often work together. Similar to the algae and molluscs that build up on the bottom of ships, our teeth provide perfect surfaces for entire communities to be built! These communities are called biofilms, and are usually made up of a range of microbes that like living together. Some microbes only move in once we have teeth, and other microbes have made conditions just right. They form ecosystems, like found in forests and other natural environments.
- Depending on what we eat, and how we look after our mouths and our health, these ecosystems can be completely unnoticed, or lead to a furry feeling, or dental plaque. If left for too long, the biofilm can develop into dental calculas, which only your dentist can remove! Similar to ship hulls, if not regularly cleaned teeth require intensive scraping and sometimes patching (aka fillings).
- Importantly, having biofilms (and the microbes they comprise) in our mouths isn’t bad. Having a diverse array of well cared for oral microbes can not only protect our gums and teeth, but can also help protect the rest of our body!
- Just like us, microbes need food to eat and this is plentiful in the mouth. Our saliva (which is brimming with molecules from our body and our microbes), the food we eat and the waste products of other microbes all help nourish our oral microbiome. A varied diet is important for our mouths and stomachs!
- So, our diets have a big influence over which microbes we are supporting. It seems that the foods humans now eat the most of, like refined flours and added sugars, do not support healthy biofilms.
- Added sugar, and cooked refined flour (which becomes sugar like) feeds microbes that make acid. This acid disrupts biofilms and eats away at our teeth, causing tooth decay. Tooth decay is one of the most common human diseases!
- Studies of the teeth of our ancestors suggest that increasing intakes of added sugar and refined flours has led to worse oral health over the past 10,000 years
The best ways to help our microbes and reduce tooth decay is to limit the number of times we eat sugar each day, drink water, and brush! Leaving time between meals/snacks also gives time for our saliva to help return things to a good balance.
What happens to my saliva?
The saliva journey, from museum to discoveries…
- After you drop your tube into the collection point at the Museum, it will sit on dry ice, with the other samples, until the end of the day.
- They will then be transported to the University of Melbourne and be stored at -80 degrees Celsius in a specialised security monitored freezer. Samples are kept frozen to reduce changes that occur with higher temperatures that affect the microbes and would change what we find in your sample.
- Every 4-6 weeks, all the samples in the freezer will then be transported to the Peter Doherty Institute for processing and analysis, where we will estimate which microbes are present!
- Any sample left will be returned to the dedicated freezer, and stored for at least 15 years after the last research publication about them has been published (and longer if you consent to it on the consent form).
- After all that, and any time we use some of it to look at something, it will be sterilised (microbes killed) and then disposed of safely, in the same way that medical waste is usually disposed of.
I’m under 18, can I take part?
Yes! But you will need a parent or legal guardian with you to provide consent. If you are 11 years old or younger, your parent/guardian will need to take part with you, and they will complete the questionnaire bits for you both.
If you are between 12 and 17 years old, and your parent/guardian comes to the museum and signs a form saying so, you can complete all the parts at the museum without them.
Can my children take part?
With your consent, yes! You will need to be present at the museum to sign the consent form to indicate this.
Your children can take part with you, such that you will all be asked to provide height/weight measurements and a saliva sample, and you (but not your children) will be asked to complete the questionnaire. We will also send you a brief questionnaire about each child who takes part, after your visit via email.
If your children are 12 – 17 years of age, you can consent to them taking part by themselves, and completing their own questionnaire at the Museum. You will need to be present to sign the consent form, and provide supervision. We can provide a copy of the questionnaire for you to look over, prior to you deciding if your child can complete it by themselves.
Do I need to register or book to take part?
No. You just need to come and see us when we are at the museum.
I don’t live in Australia, but will be visiting the museum. Can I take part?
Yes! We would value your information in addressing our research questions; however, please note that it may not be included in the museum’s map, as, for the moment, plans are only to display data from people living in Victoria.
Does it cost anything to participate in the research study?
No, participation is free. However, you will need to gain access to the Melbourne Museum, and so may incur ticket costs. See here for ticket pricing.
Will I receive anything for participating?
There is no direct compensation to you. However, there are indirect benefits to participating. The data collected from this study will help to increase our understanding of the relationships between oral bacteria and different lifestyles, diets, and backgrounds.
For those participants who complete the longer at-home questionnaire, you can choose to receive a free dietary analysis based on the dietary questionnaire that you complete, as well as information about the microbial profile of your saliva.
We also hope participants will enjoy taking part!
What is informed consent?
Informed consent means that you, as a potential research participant, receive all relevant information in clear and understandable language before you decide if you want to take part. For this research study, before you can participate, you must read the ‘plain language statement’ and sign the consent form to indicate that you have been given this information, and understand everything involved.
The plain language statement is long (5 pages), but that is because it is important (and an ethical requirement) that you understand what you are being asked to do, and the risks and benefits. We will talk to you about this information, so do let us know if anything is unclear, and do ask any questions you might have.
Are you going to look at my genetic material (i.e., DNA)?
No. We are only interested in the microbes in your saliva. We will look at the genetic material of the microbes present, as this is what allows us to identify them.
Can you tell if I’m sick from my saliva? Will you tell me if you find something?
It is unlikely that we will be able to identify anything in your saliva that indicates that you are sick in a way that would be useful or informative to you. This is because the initial analyses that we will run on samples (i.e., 16S rRNA gene sequencing) will only tell us about the broad types of bacteria that are present, and not individual specific types of bacteria that are linked to particular illnesses. We will be running more in-depth analyses later, but this will likely be long after the information could be of any use to you. That all said, and as noted in the plain language statement, we will let you know if we find something that warrants further discussion with your general medical practitioner (GP).
If you have any questions or concerns about your health, now or in the future, please discuss these with your GP. You can also call Nurse-on-Call on 1300 60 60 24 (Victoria only), a phone service that provides immediate, expert health advice from a registered nurse, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
If you think your situation is an emergency, always call 000 or go to an emergency department at a hospital.
How will my saliva sample and information be stored?
Your saliva sample and all other information will be stored at the University of Melbourne in a secure and confidential way. Samples will be stored in restricted-access freezers that are monitored 24 hours a day, and only marked by the bar code printed on the tubes. Other information will be stored electronically in password protected databases on restricted-access servers, which sit behind university firewalls. Only those staff and students named on the ethics approval for the project will be given access to this data. All identifying information (e.g., your name, address, date of birth, etc.) will be stored separately to the other information you provide (e.g., questionnaire responses, saliva analyses, etc.).
De-identified microbial sequence data will be uploaded to public databases in accordance with scientific protocols when study results are published in scientific journals. Please note, however, that we will never release any information you provide to us that could identify you or any member of your family. The only exceptions to this are if you provide information which indicate a significant risk of harm to yourself or someone else, and where required by law (e.g., a judicial subpoena from a state or federal court of law).
Will I get individual results?
No. This project is for research purposes only and we are thus unable to provide individualised results. If you have particular questions or concerns, we recommend you discuss them with your general medical practitioner (GP).
The findings from our research will be incorporated into the Gut Feelings display wall as the project progresses. We will also send interested participants regular newsletters via email and provide information on the study website.
If you choose to complete the longer ‘at-home questionnaire’, we will offer to send you a dietary analysis profile (based on your responses to one of the questionnaires), and a ‘salivary microbiome profile’ (based on your saliva sample).
I don’t have regular access to the internet or email. Can I take part?
Yes! Participation at the museum does not require personal internet or email access. If you would like to do the ‘at-home questionnaire’, let us know and we can post you a paper copy of the questionnaire (with a reply paid envelope to return it to us).
Who will be able to access the information I provide?
Only researchers named on the approved University of Melbourne ethics document for this project will be able to access your information. These names are listed on the ‘plain language statement’
Where can I learn more about the microbiome?
Microbiomes are communities of different microbes found in any given ecosystem. It is estimated that people have about 38 trillion microbes living with them! The majority of our microbes live in our large intestine, but are also found in our mouths and on our skin. In this study, we are exploring how the human saliva microbiome varies with different lifestyles.
To find out more about microbiomes, we recommend you visit a book store or the internet, or both! Here are some good places to start. You can also take a look at our page on this site, ‘Microbiome and Health’, and we’ll be updating this with information from our studies and other cool things scientists have discovered.
Recommendations – Books
- ‘Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes’, by Rob Knight (2015).
- ‘Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System’, by Jack Gilbert and Rob Knight (2019).
- ‘Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (Revised Edition)’, by Giulia Enders (2018).
- ‘I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life’, by Ed Yong (2017).
Recommendations – Websites
- The Conversation has many articles written by scientists for a general audience, and is a great place to learn more about a large range of topics. This link will bring up all articles published on the microbiome in the last few years (there are a lot!).
- The Earth Microbiome Project is attempting to characterise all microbial life on the planet!
What does that mean?! Some of the science jargon (tricky words) explained!
(do let us know on the contact form if there is anything you’d like us to add)
Microbes – microbes are microscopic organisms, and consist of just a single cell with simple structures; i.e., they are living things too small to see without a microscope. Microbes include bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea, protozoa, and algae.
Microbiome - a microbiome is a community of different microbes found in any given ecosystem. It is estimated that people have about 38 trillion microbes living with them! The majority of our microbes live in our large intestine, but are also found in our mouths and on our skin. In this study, we are interested in all the different microbes that are found in our saliva – i.e., our saliva microbiome.
Gut - your gastrointestinal tract (GIT) runs from your mouth to your bum. As you enter the exhibition, the silver line on the floor shows you the details of this as you walk the length of your gut. In Gut Feelings, they are mostly talking about the large intestine, as this is where most of our microbes live.
Prebiotics - food that your microbes eat (e.g., fibre in vegetables that you cannot digest but your microbes love).
Probiotics - living microbes that benefit our health.
Postbiotics - the stuff microbes make (like short-chain fatty acids) that can send messages through our different body systems.
Antibiotics - in Australia, these are prescribed medicines that kill bacteria. They are important to fight unwanted bacterial infections but should only be taken when needed.
DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid is a molecule carrying the genetic instructions for life on Earth. It is essential for life, and variations in it drive the massive variation in living organisms across the planet.
DNA sequencing– sequencing of DNA is similar to making photocopies of the DNA. We use scientific equipment designed to “read” the DNA from each sample, and use computer programs to make sense of each DNA sequence.
16S rRNA gene – the 16S rRNA gene is a small portion of the microbes’ genetic material (i.e., its genome). We can use the 16S rRNA gene as what we call a biomarker to help us identify microbes. You can think of the 16S rRNA gene as a sticker on an apple. For example, the sticker might tell us the apple is a Granny Smith apple, but it won’t tell us if there are any blemishes on the apple or any other characteristics of that apple.
Amplicon 16S rRNA gene sequencing – this is an experiment where we sequence only the 16S rRNA gene, and analyse the sequence data in such a way to profile the microbiome.
Contact the Victorian Oral Microbiome and Lifestyle Study by clicking here and entering your details in the form that loads.