I will be honest: I love cats. I also love immunology. In a perfect world, I would find myself playing with cats all day in the lab. This could actually become a reality, at least with Kittybiome, a project that originated as somewhat of a joke among three scientists at a conference in 2013.

AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT, three microbiologists with a background in genomics, Drs. Jennifer Gardy, Jonathan Eisen, and Jack Gilbert, sat down together in Washington, DC and tweeted about a kitten microbiome project, musing  about its potential cuteness. They did not expect the idea to explode on the internet; the tweet was quickly picked up by some of their followers and “kittymicrobiome” soon had its own Twitter account and a website.

Although the researchers talked about the possibility of “swabbing some cat butts” in their spare time, the project really started to take shape when Dr. Holly Ganz, a researcher working with Dr. Eisen and an expert on the microbiomes of large African cats, decided to take ownership. Under her guidance, a proper vision and direction were established. Drs. Gardy and Ganz teamed up with the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue (VOKRA), a very interested partner in this project, and shortly thereafter, the Kickstarter campaign for Kittybiome was launched.kittybiome logo

The Favourite Medium of the Internet…and Immunology

I had the fortunate opportunity to chat with Dr. Gardy about Kittybiome. She is a senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, an assistant professor in the School of Population and Public Health, and an associate member of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of British Columbia.

Graphic credit: Kieran Manion

When I asked Dr. Gardy about the purpose of Kittybiome, a project that seems to veer dangerously on the cutesy side, she stated, “The goal was always raising awareness about the microbiome and microbial sciences using the internet’s favourite medium — cats.” After a moment of bonding over our shared love for cats, Dr. Gardy continued, “Once Holly took the lead, [it] really crystallized: it’s a citizen science project in which people actually get to participate in the data (well, poop) collection process, [and help analyze the] resulting data.” Given that the field of microbiome research is “absolutely exploding right now” (no poo pun intended), she believes that “this is a fun and easy way for people to get involved with the science first-hand.”

At the same time, as scientists, they are hoping to learn more about cat gut microbiomes from these data, which could be used to fund “larger, more traditional studies at some point.” And there are a lot of interesting questions when it comes to cats and the microbiome: “How does diet affect a kitty’s microbiome? What are the differences between indoor, outdoor, and feral kitties? How does a newborn kitten’s microbiome get established? All of these are questions we might be able to answer with the data we’ll be generating,” said Dr. Gardy. The researchers involved are also in full support of open access and open data, so the data will be accessible through public repositories. All publications resulting from the work will be free for the public to access.kittybiome logo

Kickstarting Kittybiome

The crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter for Kittybiome was launched on May 11, 2015. The campaign went over so well that the initial goal was reached after the first 24 hours. By June 10, the campaign ended with an impressive amount of $23,183 USD with 229 backers. The money goes towards the preparation and processing of sample kits used by public contributors. By early August, the sample kits were shipped out along with a survey about the health, diet and behaviour of the cats.

Before the end of their Kickstarter campaign, the Kittybiome scientists posted the results from a preliminary sequencing analysis to demonstrate where the money was being put to use. The study compared stool samples from two feral cats, four cats at the Berkeley shelter, five house cats and three free-ranging pumas from Southern California. The pumas clearly differed from the domestic cats in their gut content. The domestic cats (house cats and shelter cats) showed a lot of variation in the composition of the gut microbiome at the phylum level. One house cat with irritable bowel disorder had a high proportion of Bacteroidetes but so did some of the other house cats. Due to the small sample size, the researchers were not able to determine the relationship between Bacteroidetes and irritable bowel disorder in cats.

With the incoming samples from additional cats, the Kittybiome scientists hope to address how the gut microbiomes of feral cats compare to other cats in the animal shelter, and whether there is increased diversity in the gut microbiome of feral cats, presumably due to elevated exposure to different food sources and environments.kittybiome logo

A Bridge between Scientists and the Public

Crowdsourcing campaigns have become wildly popular for a large variety of business ventures and personal milestones, but it seems like a rather unconventional way to secure funding for scientific research. When I asked Dr. Gardy about her thoughts on this type of funding and future funding opportunities, she admitted that she was pleasantly surprised at how successful the Kickstarter campaign was and how quickly it happened. In fact, she was in the UK when it launched, so she “tweeted it, went to bed, and woke up to find [they] had almost reached [their] goal!”

Image credit: Angela Zhang
Image credit: Angela Zhang

Given the success of the campaign, Dr. Gardy is also open to the idea of pursuing other sources of funding, such as charitable foundations, to help sequence more kitty stool. However, she emphasizes that aside from the awesome allure of cats, the major take-home message behind a publicly-funded Kittybiome project is the importance of the connection between scientists and the public. The entire campaign is a creative way “to show them how science works and to allow them to be a part of the process”. She firmly believes that “Kittybiome is a cute and fun way to get at what really is a more serious goal – science literacy. More of our scientific community should be thinking about unique and creative ways to share their work with the people who ultimately fund it and benefit from it!”

The cat is out of the bag on that front.

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Angela Zhang

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