What Are ‘Eye Crusties’ Made Of? uBiome Invites Citizen Scientists to Find Out

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Leading microbial genomics company uBiome is recruiting participants for an innovative study which will explore the microbial composition of “eye crusties”, the gooey build-up that can form in the corner of the eyes after sleep.


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While it may seem outlandish to examine eye crusties, is it really any stranger than studying spit or poop?

Finding gooey or crusty material in the corner of your eyes as you wake in the morning is quite normal. Although there are a considerable number of terms in popular use to describe it, ophthalmologists call it “gound” or “rheum”. It is well understood that this post-sleep material is a mixture of mucus, blood cells, skin cells and dust, but until now there has been virtually no research into its bacterial composition. This is what the new uBiome study will investigate. Although the everyday substance is in general unremarkable and harmless, there are conditions such as Dry Eye and conjunctivitis in which it may take on a different appearance.

How to take part in the uBiome eye study: http://ubiome.com/pages/eyecrust

The microbial element of “eye gunk” forms part of the remarkable quantity and variety of bacteria carried in and on the body, collectively known as the human microbiome. Between three and six pounds of the average human’s weight is bacteria, and in fact there are around ten times more bacterial cells in the body than there are human cells. In healthy humans these ever-present bacteria play important roles. They help with digestion, for instance: some of the nutritional content of vegetables cannot be released by the gut and small intestine, but is instead processed by the body’s bacteria. The human microbiome also supports the synthesis of vitamins. In a less benign way though, some kinds of bacteria can be behind diseases such as autoimmune disorders, diabetes, heart conditions, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and skin conditions.

The individual types of bacteria in a person’s microbiome have become identifiable thanks to a $115 million project by the NIH Human Microbiome Project. uBiome’s rDNA sequencing service builds on this trail-blazing work, enabling the company to cut the cost of microbiome sequencing from millions of dollars ten years ago to just $89 today, making it accessible to all.

Few outside of the field of ophthalmology use the words “gound” or “rheum”, adopting instead a rich variety of colorful terms, including eye boogers, sleepies, eye crusties, or just “sleep” - as in “wipe the sleep out of my eyes”. Less common terms are sleepy dust and sand, both perhaps originating from Hans Christian Anderson’s nineteenth century fairytale Ole Lukøje, whose “Sandman” was said to sprinkle sand or dust into the eyes of children at night to help them sleep better and dream more happily.

When the gunk found in the eye changes consistency, an opthalmologist may diagnose an infection such conjunctivitis, or a disease such as Dry Eye in which there are insufficient tears to lubricate and nourish the eye. Dry Eye particularly affects older people. According to the 2007 Report of the International Dry Eye Workshop (a six-year international study involving seventy expert researchers) about 4.9 million Americans over the age of 50 suffer from it on a permanent basis, with tens of millions more having less severe symptoms and a more episodic manifestation of the disease brought on by low humidity or contact lens wear.

Jessica Richman, co-founder and CEO of uBiome, expects the study to reveal invaluable new findings. “These days we take it for granted that analyzing something as innocent as saliva provides rich data about an individual. We accept that stool analysis offers similarly abundant health information. So while it may seem outlandish to examine eye crusties, is it really any stranger than studying spit or poop?”

Dr. Zachary Apte, CTO and co-founder of uBiome, says the company’s versatile laboratory methods mean that microbes from any source can be analyzed and identified. “By extracting the bacterial DNA from samples, we identify the bacteria using 16S sequencing and custom bioinformatics. Customers ask us to analyze microbial material from their pets, even from the soil in their gardens, so testing eye crusties is really just another way to learn about our microbial makeup.”

uBiome was founded by UCSF scientists and technologists from Stanford and Cambridge after a crowd-funding campaign in 2012 raised more than $350,000 from citizen scientists, triple its initial goal. uBiome is now backed by Andreesen Horowitz, Y Combinator, and other leading investors. The company’s mission is to use big data to understand the human microbiome by giving consumers the power to learn about their bodies, perform experiments, and see how current research studies apply to them.

Those interested in taking part in the uBiome eye study can find details here: http://ubiome.com/pages/eyecrust

Alexandra Carmichael
Ph: +1 415-691-7291

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