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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4 Customer Reviews for uBiome

Average Customer Rating: 1.0
Rating Snapshot:
5 star: 0 4 star: 0 3 star: 0 2 star: 0 1 star:  4
Bottom Line: 0% would recommend it to a friend
Showing 1-4 of 4
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  • 3 out 3 people found this review helpful

    Terrible! Doubt the accuracy. Non-existent customer service.

    First, I did the test about a year ago. OK, all went well and I found it interesting. I tried to do again in the spring, and they completely lost the sample. They sent a new kit and this time it worked. However, the results were worse than in the fall when I first did it, and since I first did it, I implemented all sorts of things that should have made it better. Many fermented foods, pro and prebiotics, regular exercise, no antibiotics, and clean eating. So I can't help but really question the lab results.

    I tried contacting them four times, including calling (once I could find a phone number), and nobody ever replied to me. They obviously don't want to explain why their report seems so flawed. This makes me greatly distrust this company, and I wouldn't ever recommend them to anyone.

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

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  • 4 out 4 people found this review helpful

    Zero performance

    I ordered a kit on April 28, 2017, and sent it in promptly. I have sent emails in follow-up at least five times. The first two were answered with a typical corporate reply but no real information about when I could expect a report. Now it is September 28th, and I still have no report on my microbiome. The company did have time to bill my insurance company for thousands of dollars, but I don't recall giving it permission to do this; of course, my insurer denied the claim.

    As far as I can determine, this outfit is a scam. I did my part, including paying for the report. It has not done its part of our deal.

    To make it worse, there has been zero communication after my first two emails. I think any reasonable person would agree that the company has had enough time to do its work and make a report, or offer a decent explanation and get a resample or provide me a refund.

    uBiome is a waste of time and money. Don't fall victim to the marketing info; uBiome is all flash and no performance.

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

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  • 4 out 4 people found this review helpful

    Awful service

    • Massachusetts,
    • Sep 25, 2017
    • Verified Reviewer

    I had sent in my test kit with the promise it would be sequenced in 6-8 weeks. Ten weeks later I reached out for support and received none. Then two weeks later I sent another email inquiring about my sample and without a reply just sent off the results. They were not helpful nor apologetic, and didn't say what took them so long. I'm sure there are other services out there that are much quicker and better.

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

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  • 12 out 14 people found this review helpful

    This is an insurance scam!

    • Berkeley, CA,
    • Sep 6, 2017
    • Verified Reviewer

    I was shocked not only to receive a $2900 charge from uBiome on my health insurance, but also to find out that it was denied in full. I never gave out the name of my health insurance provider, nor permission for uBiome to access that account. As of this date, my test kit ($89) has not been processed. I sent it to uBiome in June.

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

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