What Is uBiome?

By Derek Lakin
HighYa Staff Published on: Jul 18, 2017

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.

uBiome SmartGut Sample Collection KitAccording 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

Refunds aren’t available on uBiome’s tests, although customer service can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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.

See Also: Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing Pros & Cons: Is It Right for You?

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30 Consumer Reviews for uBiome

Average Consumer Rating: 1.7
Rating Snapshot:
5 star: 4 4 star: 1 3 star: 0 2 star: 1 1 star:  24
Bottom Line: 17% would recommend it to a friend
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  • 1 out 1 people found this review helpful

    The worst

    • St. Louis, MO,
    • Aug 13, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    My provider thought using this company would provide useful information regarding the biodiversity of my gut. Not only did it take almost four months for them to provide sample kits, it has now been over a year for them to process my samples. Any issue I was having has been resolved without the "insight" of uBiome. I’ve also had extensive back and forth with employees requesting insurance information so they can process the billing for samples. Overall I am beyond frustrated dealing with this terrible company with even more horrendous customer service.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 2 out 2 people found this review helpful
    Updated review

    It took two months, but the results are amazing.

    • San Jose, CA,
    • Aug 9, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    I'm replacing my first review, which was negative because I had not received any results. Finally they arrived, and wow! I've eaten probiotics for years, so I expected my score to be high. I'm way below average! My balance of most common bacteria tells the tale of why I'm struggling to lose weight, my gut is dominated with fat-storing bacteria. I'm on a new diet now with a new doctor and nutritionist, and I hope to reverse the years-long tend. This report is remarkably helpful. My only complaint is the time it took six weeks to get the results. I realized that they had trouble processing it.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

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    • Jul 31, 2018

      David G.

      Update on my experience: I finally got my results! On July 31, almost 12 weeks after they received them. They did send an apology with a note that they had run into difficulty with my sample. My results are pretty remarkable: after two years of taking probiotics, my levels are at the bottom! So lots to learn there. I'd be glad to update my review if you let me know how to do that, with a much higher rating now that I have results.

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    • Previous review
    • Jul 3, 2018

    I never got results. Don't waste your money.

    I submitted my sample after paying the $85 up front. They confirmed receipt, and I waited four weeks, then I wrote to ask where my results were. Someone responded and said, "Thanks for your patience! We'll get right back to you." Three more weeks passed and I inquired again. Silence. After 8eightweeks, I think I can safely say my money was wasted.

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  • 2 out 2 people found this review helpful

    Don't waste your money

    • Otsego, MI,
    • Jul 20, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    Seriously disorganized company. Bills insurance an astronomical amount of money and as of today I just keep getting emails saying we received your sample and are working on it. They sent me four more tests but no results.

    I will never fall for this again. I will call my insurance company and tell them not to pay them anything else. I guess by all the negative reviews I am not the only one who has big doubts.

    I cannot recommend this company at this time.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 2 out 2 people found this review helpful

    Either a scam or completely incompetent

    • Phoenix, AZ,
    • Jul 19, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    I sent my sample in and I never received any results. I contacted them a month later, and they told me it would be just another couple of weeks. After a couple of weeks, I contacted them again, and they kept telling me that it is still being approved or something to that effect. The bottom line, I have no idea what these people are doing with my DNA, but it certainly is not what they said they would do. Do not trust this company.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 4 out 4 people found this review helpful

    NO!

    • Colorado,
    • Jul 11, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    No, do not send for this kit. I sent on for a kit when it was "free," and they were just getting started. Now almost a year later I find that my health insurance company has been billed $2900 for some type of DNA testing. My gut results were normal with no disease-including bacteria present, so why would I need further testing? NO! Do not send anything to this company!

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 5 out 6 people found this review helpful

    uBiome insurance scam, $2970 is how much they charge

    • Houston, TX,
    • Jun 25, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    Don’t give them your insurance information. In my case, I did smart gut (just one sample) and received data after a few weeks.

    BUT, my insurance (BCBS) was charged $2970, and according to EOB statement, I owe it all. Maybe I will not have to pay it all, but I wish I ordered from another company, and maybe pay a little up front and know for sure total cost. Also, try looking for a contact phone number on their website.

    To me, uBiome is just insurance scam. Please beware and stay away from them.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 2 out 3 people found this review helpful

    Spammer

    • Nevada,
    • Jun 9, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    I think their analysis is pretty good, but since I've gotten and tried to get another more detailed analysis done, I've been spammed by them constantly. I have contacted them three times in efforts to get it to stop. They have said it would stop each time and each time, amazingly it continues.

    If you don't like the hard sell (and uBiome brings it really hard), try someone else.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 0 out 1 people found this review helpful

    Fascinating

    • North Carolina,
    • Jun 7, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    I've truly enjoyed working with uBiome over the past year and watching how my body changes in response to heavy antibiotics, and subsequent increase in fiber-rich and fermented foods. I've never had billing issues, and customer service has answered all my questions, although the response does take several days sometimes. I highly recommend these to anyone curious or who has digestive issues.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

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  • 3 out 3 people found this review helpful

    Promises not kept

    I bought Explorer and sent my results in. It took a long time to get the results, but I got them. They said that my results allowed me to get a SmartGut free. I got my doctor to OK this and sent the info to them. Nothing has happened for six weeks, and I have emailed them several times. I keep getting "I'm sorry I'll get it to you," but it never comes. This is no way to run a business. If they didn't want to do this, they should never have offered it.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 4 out 6 people found this review helpful

    What they test is a perfect reflection of the company, crap!

    • Arkansas,
    • Apr 29, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    In short, they are an absolute and total waste of your time because their insurance eligibility connectivity is a Mickey Mouse show. Their decision to not provide telephone numbers is the second act of the same Mickey Mouse show. And, the fact that they wait weeks between email responses to only provide non-answers, represents the Final Act of the Mickey Mouse show.

    Obviously, they're having so many internal operational challenges, most likely scientific challenges, that their product would represent the exact same quality they deliver client-facing! I'm disappointed to say that they suck!

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 3 out 5 people found this review helpful

    Great experience!

    • New Hampshire,
    • Apr 27, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    I am shocked at all the bad reviews! I have had great experiences with this company. I signed up for the SmartGut and SmartJane clinical trials. They have received $0 from my insurance company and send me numerous kits on a regular basis. My results are easily found online.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

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    • May 10, 2018

      Marianne Castillo

      Hi, Donna. I was just wondering if they have really covered the balance 100%? I’m just worried because reading other reviews and some are saying that their HRA was touched to cover the balance.

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