The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is a United States National Institutes of Health initiative with the goal of identifying and characterizing the microorganisms which are found in association with both healthy and diseased humans (i.e. their microbial flora). Launched in 2008, it is a five-year project, best characterized as a feasibility study, and has a total budget of $115 million. The ultimate goal of this and similar NIH-sponsored microbiome projects is to test how changes in the human microbiome are associated with human health or disease. This topic is currently not well understood.
The gut flora is the human flora of microorganisms that normally live in the digestive tract and can perform a number of useful functions for their hosts. The average human body, consisting of about 1013 (10,000,000,000,000 or about ten trillion) cells, has about ten times that number of microorganisms in the gut. The metabolic activity performed by these bacteria is equal to that of a virtual organ, leading to gut bacteria being termed a "forgotten" organ.
Bacteria make up most of the flora in the colon and 60% of the dry mass of feces. This fact makes feces an ideal source to test for gut flora for any tests and experiments by extracting the nucleic acid from fecal specimens, and bacterial 16S rRNA gene sequences are generated with bacterial primers. This form of testing is also often preferable to more invasive techniques, such as biopsies. Somewhere between 300 and 1000 different species live in the gut, with most estimates at about 500. However, it is probable that 99% of the bacteria come from about 30 or 40 species. Fungi and protozoa also make up a part of the gut flora, but little is known about their activities.
Research suggests that the relationship between gut flora and humans is not merely commensal (a non-harmful coexistence), but rather is a mutualistic, symbiotic relationship. Though people can survive with no gut flora, the microorganisms perform a host of useful functions, such as fermenting unused energy substrates, training the immune system, preventing growth of harmful species, regulating the development of the gut, producing vitamins for the host (such as biotin and vitamin K), and producing hormones to direct the host to store fats. However, in certain conditions, some species are thought to be capable of causing disease by causing infection or increasing cancer risk for the host.