What Is uBiome?
As a genetics company, uBiome offers two sequencing-based microbiome screening tests that promise to provide customers with actionable insight they can use to understand and improve their gut health.
Specifically, the website tells us that you’ll be able to discover the bacteria that live in and on your body (collectively referred to as the ‘microbiome’), and whether these microorganisms are beneficial or pathogenic—such as those associated with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
From there, you’ll learn how diet and lifestyle factors can affect these microorganisms and potentially help you feel better.
Together, uBiome’s claim that they’re “pioneering a new era of microbiome-based precision medicine" seems warranted. But does this necessarily mean the price you pay will deliver the value you expect? Stick with us, and we'll help you explore important factors like these.
What Importance Does Your Microbiome Play?
The microbiome is defined as “the microorganisms in a particular environment (the body as a whole or a part of the body),” including their combined genetic material.
According to University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center, like any other community on earth, these microorganisms respond to their surroundings and continuously shift throughout our lifetime. But if these populations shift too far in one direction, leading to an excessive number of “bad” microorganisms, they report it can result in a whole host of conditions; from acne and asthma to eczema and obesity.
From a gut health perspective, this is the basic approach behind probiotics. These supplements contain specific bacteria strains, which are typically chosen based on their ability to repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria and potentially address digestion-related issues.
Now, how does uBiome fit into this picture?
SmartGut vs. Explorer: How Do the uBiome Tests Work?
uBiome currently offers two different consumer-level screening services:
What Are the Details Behind uBiome’s SmartGut Test?
Available only in the U.S., SmartGut is designed for patients experiencing chronic gut conditions or those who are working with their physician to optimize their gut microbiome.
Speaking of which, the test must be ordered by your doctor, and involves an easy-to-use collection kit that requires just enough fecal matter to tint a cotton swab. Then, this is cleanly returned in a pre-paid mailer.
According to their website, uBiome’s SmartGut Collection Kit includes everything you’ll need to obtain a sample, which will be sent back to the company using a pre-paid label. Image credit: uBiome, Inc.
Once received by the company’s CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited lab, they’ll use their high-throughput DNA sequencing technology to measure your bacterial diversity and identify specific pathogens that could be making you feel less-than-optimal. This includes microorganisms associated with conditions like IBS, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and even sore throat.
Their Microbiome Diversity Score will also let you know “how your microbiome compares to healthy participants from the world’s largest microbiome research dataset,” as well as how your lifestyle and diet impact these microorganisms.
With these details in mind, it’s important to point out the uBiome site emphasizes that SmartGut does not represent “a diagnosis without the evaluation of your symptoms by a medical professional” and that it’s “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
What About the uBiome Explorer Test?
Comparatively, Explorer is available to residents of 202 countries and was designed “for citizen scientists and academic researchers to conduct experiments relating to the microbiome.”
Customers have the opportunity to take samples from up to five different sites, including the nose, skin, mouth, genitalia (both male and female), as well as the gut. Just swab across the corresponding site, send the kit back to uBiome, and you’ll receive results within 4-6 weeks.
Instead of a detailed report like with the SmartGut screen, Explorer will provide access to online interactive tools (e.g. graphs and charts) that can help you understand how your bacteria compare to others, as well as the ability to track your bacteria over time (should you decide to order more than one test):
- Gut Explorer – A one-time test for curious beginners.
- Time Lapse Explorer – A three-time sequence that could be handy for tracking levels before, during, and after a diet or other lifestyle change.
- Five Site Explorer – Provides access to five sample sites, including gut, mouth, nose, genitals, and skin.
Regardless of which screen you choose, uBiome indicates your data is protected by “multiple layers of encryption and the highest levels of computer security. You control your data, and can choose whether or not you consent to having your data be anonymized and aggregated into our research studies.”
How Much Does a uBiome Screen Cost?
According to the FAQ on uBiome’s website, their SmartGut test is currently only available to residents of the U.S. through their Pilot program. While this means you must have health insurance in order to participate, they note that “any costs not covered by your insurance company will be covered by uBiome.” In other words, it’s free while this program is operational.
However, their Explorer tests are priced as follows:
- Gut Explorer: One-time purchase $89, $71.20 as monthly subscription
- Time Lapse Explore: One-time purchase $199
- Five Site Explorer: One-time purchase $399, $319.20 as monthly subscription
What Can We Learn From uBiome Reviews?
We found two uBiome customer reviews on Amazon at the time of our research, who had given the genetic screening service an average rating of three stars. The five-star reviewer stated that they were excited to see their lifestyle changes reflected in their screening, while the one-star reviewer wasn’t satisfied with the requirement to share their information, or their overall results.
Back in 2015, Discover Magazine’s Sarah Scoles ordered a uBiome SmartGut screen and concluded:
“I didn’t pay $89 for my sample analysis kit. But if I had, I would have been disappointed. And if I had paid $399 for the five-site kit, I would have been even more so. The amount of readily available information provided little enlightenment about what my internal lurkers meant about me.
While we know the microbiome is important (so important!), we’re just beginning our research into the specifics. And big data — your data — is the way to learn what a high firmicute to bacteriodete ratio means for health. Given that, it would be more appropriate for uBiome to pay you to swab your toilet paper than for you to give them $90 so you can learn what they can’t yet tell you.”
More recently, TechnologyReview.com interviewed Rob Knight, a microbiome researcher, professor at the University of California, San Diego, and co-founder of the American Gut project, who made a similar statement, noting "The enthusiasm of their manufacturers simply goes well beyond where the science is right now."
In other words, while these types of tests might engage us in science and help us learn more about our body, the actionable value they provided seems to currently be limited.
As far as the company, uBiome was founded in October 2012 by Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte, who both worked at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. Then, in 2013, the company went on to raise nearly $363K in a 2013 Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.
Since that time, uBiome has received a variety of awards, including the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Healthcare by Fast Company, as well as CNN 10: Startups To Watch.
Given uBiome’s early success, has this created any competition in the marketplace?
uBiome vs. Other Microbiome Sampling Companies
While there weren’t a whole lot of microbiome screening companies competing with uBiome at the time of our research, there were several other popular options. These included:
|Company||Price||Screening Services / Information Provided|
|uBiome||Free - $399||Gut; Exterior (nose, skin, mouth, genitalia) - Bacterial diversity, microorganisms related to specific conditions|
|Thryve||$99||Gut – Diet and supplement recommendations, learn about probiotic strains, how to improve leaky gut|
|Map My Gut||£250||Gut bacteria classification and what they can mean for health|
|DexaFit Microbiome Gut Analysis (powered by uBiome)||$89||Gut microorganism identification and symptoms they can cause|
|DayTwo.com||$299||Gut - Personalized nutrition and sugar response predictions; app access|
How can you choose the right option?
Each of these seemed to come with meaningfully different prices, along with a variety of information contained in their reports. So, if price is your most important factor, a free SmartGut screen through uBiome might be difficult to beat, although you’ll need to have health insurance to qualify.
On the other hand, if you’re diabetic, the DayTwo.com screen might be ideal, while those specifically interested in probiotics or supplement recommendations might be better served by Thryve.
Let’s carry these thoughts over to the final section as we wrap things up.
What’s the Bottom Line About uBiome?
Returning to the TechnologyReview article cited earlier, they emphasize “there’s a lot we don’t know about the microbiome and its connection to our health.”
As a result, American Gut project co-founder Rob Knight acknowledges that "what people can realistically expect to learn from these new commercial tests is more along the lines of a snapshot of how a participant's microbiome compares to others with different diets, ages, and lifestyles, or in different places around the world."
Given these important factors, only you—in conjunction with a healthcare professional, of course—can decide if the “cool” factor behind a gut microbiome screen like uBiome is worth the time and overall expense. But if you’re suffering from a more severe or chronic condition, it just might provide the information you need to find some relief.