I Sent a Sample of My Poop to uBiome

By Sarah Scoles | October 7, 2015 11:59 am

(Credit: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock)

My sample kit from uBiome stared at me from the kitchen table. Inside its sleek black cover, latched with Velcro, a single high-tech Q-tip awaited. On some morning of my choosing, I was to dab that Q-tip on a piece of used toilet paper, seal it up, and send tiny particles of my excrement back to the uBiome headquarters in downtown San Francisco. There, researchers would parse it and let me know what organisms squirmed around my intestines.

uBiome, a biotech startup, exists to help people explore their microbiomes — the population of tiny organisms that live inside you, outnumbering your own cells 10(ish) to 1(ish). I wanted to know how my own microbiome compared to other people like me: youngish people who run a lot who are generally healthy but sometimes eat large cheeseburgers.

But like other genetic test providers, including 23andMe and Ancestry.com, the company has a second and less visible objective. Users participate out of curiosity, health concerns — or, in the case of the still-nascent science of the microbiome, sheer novelty. But their data is the ultimate prize, which those companies, with participant permission, can study, share, and sell.

Background on the Biome

uBiome began in 2012, when founders Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte decided to take knowledge from the government’s Human Microbiome Project to the public, “enabling all of us to learn about our microbiomes and participate in science as soon as possible — without waiting years and years for the results to trickle down into products and services that people could use,” Richman told Female Founder Stories in 2014.

Around that time, people had begun to understand just how big the microbiome’s effects are. Different gut demographics correlate with different mental and physical states, including depression and obesity. And the Human Microbiome Project had pioneered the tools need to analyze those demographics. “This is the first time in history that this kind of technology is available, and we want to make it accessible to everyone,” says the company’s Director of Research and Community, Alexandra Carmichael. “The more people participate and explore their microbiome, the faster research can go.”

The uBiome Experience

Today, from uBiome’s slick website, you can buy kits to find out what lives in your gut ($89); your gut plus two other “sites” of your choosing ($159); or all five “sites” — gut, genitals, mouth, nose, and skin ($399). Just rub the cotton swabs all over your most vulnerable parts, send your microbial details to San Francisco, and fill out a questionnaire that might make you feel bad about your lifestyle and habits; then, they’ll send you back information about your tiny hangers-on.

An open test kit from uBiome. (Credit: uBiome)

An open test kit from uBiome. (Credit: uBiome)

“Basically the samples come in to our lab, we break the cells open and extract the DNA, amplify the bacterial DNA using PCR (polymerase chain reaction), then run it through a sequencer to discover which kinds of bacteria are in each sample,” says Carmichael.

If you give them consent, they will also add your data to the “aggregate.” For you, that means seeing how your microbiome compares to others’. For them, that means using the data (in anonymized form) for large-scale studies and distributing it to third parties and research affiliates.

I consented and awaited my bacterial Yellow Pages.

The Results Are In

About a month later, I got an email from uBiome informing me that my sample analysis was ready. I logged in to my personal portal and took in my pie charts and tables.

Full disclosure, 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.

To be fair, this is not totally uBiome’s fault, and it’s something they disclose explicitly in the terms of service. We don’t know enough about the microbiome to say, “Too many of X and too little of Y mean Z,” or, “Firmicutes make you fat.” I knew that, and uBiome made very clear that no human should use their service to diagnose themselves or predict their future, and that knowledge of the microbiome is nascent and evolving. But I did expect the comparison tools to have more flexibility.

(Credit: Barmaleeva/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Barmaleeva/Shutterstock)

I could check out how my bacteria’s phyla stood up to those of vegans, paleos, vegetarians, heavy drinkers, weight losers, weight gainers, those on antibiotics, men, and women. But not women on antibiotics. Or vegetarian women who are in their 30s.

My microbiome doesn’t look like vegans’, paleos’, vegetarians’, lushes’, or any of the other groups’, which makes sense given that I’m an individual and don’t strictly fit within those categories. However, it also means that my data didn’t provide me much insight. I could download my own raw data and manipulate it, but then I was looking at it in a vacuum, without a set to compare to, so the analysis amounts mostly to, “Hey, look. I have this many of those bacteria. Neat?”

Beyond that, I could see a list of all my bacteria and what percentage of the population they were; which were “most enriched” compared to the aggregate; and which were “most depleted” compared to the aggregate. For some, I could click on their name — digging down from phylum to genus — and learn more about their lives and the effect they might have on mine.

However, many — more than half, if you go all the way to genus — don’t have entries. That’s because science hasn’t figured them out yet. And science will almost certainly figure them out in the future… By which time, however, my microbiome will probably have changed.

Bio Business Model

uBiome bills itself primarily as a citizen science project—your guts in your hands!

But there’s more behind their business model than your personal curiosity. Investments totaling more than $6 million from the likes of Andreesen Horowitz and YCombinator hint that the company’s ambitions are grander than just selling a bunch of swabbing kits.

For one thing, uBiome can carry out the dirty work of other researchers’ studies. Scientists can order kits in bulk and then uBiome does the extraction, sequencing, and analyzing of microbes. “Sometimes people come to us because they don’t have microbiome sequencing facilities in-house, or our process is faster or less expensive than doing it themselves,” Carmichael explains.

And uBiome’s kit-buying customers, like me, serve a valuable purpose in that enterprise, Researchers can compare their data to our aggregate, or just mine the aggregate itself. Carmichael says the company is “pretty flooded with research study requests.”

Finally uBiome, of course, has access to any signed-over data and can use it as they please, a fact that participants are well informed of and can opt out of if they wish.

But here’s the rub: 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.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • tknterry

    This was awesome. I had to laugh at your conclusion. It does sound like uBiome is getting a lot more out of your poop than you did!

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Carefully recovering a freshly abandoned outdoor cigarette butt to leave at your next crime now makes tremendous sense. The Dark Sides’ tremendous data caches can be turned against them. The street always finds its own uses for things.

    • http://www.home-jobs-reports.biz/bo0506 Candida Flowers

      I’m finally getting 95 Dollars an hr,….It’s time to take some action and you can join it too.It is simple, easy way to get rich.Three weeks from now you will wish you have started today….

      +++++++++++++++ >>> Run to my account for more information

  • Yoikes

    So they can sell your info, and for that, you also get to pay them. Sounds like a scam.

    • Avidwriter

      welcome to the internet 2.0

  • Mike Robins

    you clearly didnt analyze your data properly

    • Brad C

      Mike, Can you articulate on what you mean? I am considering ordering this test.

  • Yusef

    I was totally screwed by uBiome. I paid $399 for “Five Stage Kit” and I only got one of the results. No recourse against them. Endless excuses about delays and then more than four months later, still nothing. Awful, awful, dishonest company. By my calculations they just stole $320 from me…

    • Sunny Haynes

      You have to log into the website and update your insurance information. Once you do that, the results are available to you. The company does not charge you anything, and whatever cost the insurance does not cover, Ubiome absorbs.

  • Willow Silverhawk

    I bought 3 of the 5 in 1 kits at Christmas (when they were on sale). I sent my samples, and gave kits to both of the my daughters. I sent my samples in, waited a month, and it still showed “awaiting samples”. I contacted the company and they sent me a replacement kit. Meanwhile my daughter sent in her samples, then I got the replacement kit and sent my second set of samples. It’s been three weeks since my daughter sent hers, and almost three weeks since I sent my second set, and the websites still shows “awaiting samples” for both of us. The samples are going to SF — my daughter lives in the bay area, and I live in Sacramento. There is no way it should take more than three weeks for the samples to be received. I’m beginning to think this company is a scam. After reading this article, I don’t even care any more. I just want my money back.

    • http://www.keelstech.com/ Lee Keels

      Any news?

      • Rocknrope

        He died as a result of poor gut flora.

        • Tina


    • Sunny Haynes

      This happened to me, I had to log into the website and enter my insurance information in order to cover the sequencing and once I did that, my results were available within days.

  • Jeffrey Jefferson

    You think that’s bad – I just found out that after signing up for a “free” kit they billed my insurance company $3,000! I didn’t even give them my insurance information, but apparently they looked it up from my social! I was actually happy to share my poop data in the interest of science, even if little info is currently available. Now I’m totally disenchanted – and my results won’t even show up and they won’t respond to my e-mails – screw these guys!

    • Jessica Vasko

      How did you find out they billed your insurance?

      • Jeffrey Jefferson

        Got a letter from the insurance company – since posting they have reached out to clarify and they say they are “absorbing” any costs not covered by insurance. They also fixed the issue with my results, so overall I’m happy with the resolution. I did learn a lot about my poop for free!

        • cris

          Jeffrey can you let me know how you got in touch with them? They also billed me $3k and there not responding to my emails or calls.

          • Jeffrey Jefferson

            I tweeted at them

          • cris

            thank you!

          • jt

            So I just got a notification that Kaiser has been billed $2900.00 from Ubiome, and this was for a free test? So I saw that some folks were able to get this cleared up? Wondering what and who do I contact? I wondered if tweeting got it resolved?

          • Amanda Nicole Barbian

            I called and left a voicemail asking about billing with no call back. had to email them twice. Customer service fail…

          • Nathalie Crane

            Did you get them to cover it and how? what did you say?

    • Jessica

      wait…. what???? That’s really messed up.

    • Tara Adams

      They don’t accept social security numbers, so they definitely didn’t get your information from that.

    • Rebecca Laster

      I had to choose my insurance carrier and give my insurance Member ID before it would allow me to continue. Never gave a SS#.

  • Cheryl

    They billed my insurance $2,900 with a $2,339.31 discount and insurance paid $540.69 – the thing I now am a bit disturbed about is I no longer seem to have access to the portal plus the files I had on my computer have disappeared. This is what the insurance company paid for: IADNA-DNA/RNA PROBE TQ 12-25 – am very curious about where the information goes besides where they said it goes…

    • Brian Palombo

      Did you Google the line “IADNA-DNA/RNA PROBE TQ 12-25?” You should, maybe you’ll understand better than me. It appears to be about insurance codes and costs maybe.

      • Cheryl

        Thank you, I will do that.

  • Marybeth Riendeau Wantz

    I sent back a kitover a month ago- have never heard back and my insurance company was charged 3k for it!!! I am on week two of trying to get some answers and of course- no response thus far. I have just left my final email and made it clear that if I didn’t hear back I would be contacting th BBB as well as the attorney general!!
    Ohh, and my insurance company!!
    Mb wantz

    • Sunny Haynes

      You have to log into the website and update your insurance information. Once you do that, the results are available to you. The company does not charge you anything, and whatever cost the insurance does not cover, Ubiome absorbs.

  • David v.R. Bowles

    I sent in a kit this past June, and heard nothing. A week ago I also got a $2,900 bill from my health insurance company – but NEVER provided that information to uBiome!! I’ve asked them to remove this charge. In any case, I never got results, nor is there any sign on their website that I submitted a kit in the first place!

    • catsquared

      Was the bill actually an “explanation of benefits,” or does your insurance company want you to pay that $2,900?

      • David v.R. Bowles

        I did hear back from uBiome, and cancelled all tests. The $2900 BILL was cancelled finally.

        • Emily Zuo

          It wasn’t a bill. You obviously know nothing about how insurance works.

          • David v.R. Bowles

            You obviously don’t read carefully.

          • Mandy6488

            This. The only ‘bill’ you receive from your health insurance company is your premium bill. Anything else is an EOB.

  • jt

    So I just got a notification that Kaiser has been billed $2900.00 from Ubiome, and this was for a free test? So I saw that some folks were able to get this cleared up? Wondering what and who do I contact?

    • XX

      I got a notice from kaiser today too! $2,900 for a kit that I know was free!

      • Colleen Quinn

        They bill your insurance for the kit, which is why it is “free” to you. Ubiome then absorbs any of the remaining cost not taken care of by your insurance.

      • David Tatlitug

        Not free and never was free. The details are in the website and consist of ten pages. I guarantee you didn’t read them. The kit is free but the analysis is not. They do state however that during this better period they will absorb any cost that your insurance will not. They have had terms of our agreement right there as a link right in front of you. Don’t knock a company because you didn’t see anything but the word free. If it were free why did you give them your insurance info? And for the last who said she didn’t, she did. Under Hippa they can’t just look up who insures you.

        • XX

          I guarantte youre an idiot

  • jt

    Here’s the response I got from Ubiome:

    I’m happy to help! What you received from your health insurance is known as an Explanation of Benefits (EOB) – this is not a bill. Essentially, this is letting you know what (if any) your insurance company covered and what they anticipate we’ll be billing you for (the balance).

    We will not be billing you for this balance, however. You will not receive a bill, and you will not be responsible for any out of pocket cost.

    • Michelle Des Lauriers

      Whew. I got my EOB a week ago and was worried that this would cost me $300 and that it was a scam. Knowing you absorb the not covered by insurance costs makes me happy that my data can be used to help people’s health in the future-maybe even my own.

      • Kristy Goodman

        I’m honestly surprised insurance covers this at all

  • Colleen Quinn

    None of these comments come as a surprise to me. It was clearly stated, in the information I read when I ordered my free kit, that they bill your insurance (you may only receive a free kit IF you have insurance) and whatever costs left over, UBiome absorbs. Hence, your kit is “free” to you.

  • nereus

    soon they will use the gut database to find who pooped on the crime scene

  • Chelsea

    Interesting to note – uBiome absorbs whatever cost that your insurance does not cover for that Free SmartGut promo… But the $2900 that my insurance didn’t pay went towards my baseline for the year so, I am now $2900 closer to reaching my minimum before insurance kicks in for coverage :)

    • Cee Bbb

      Did the $2900 count toward your In-Network Deductible or Out-of-Network Deductible?

  • CSim12

    They offer a single portal to access results and for days now all I get from their site is “try again later” because their system is hiccuping. A few days ago a response email said their engineers are looking at the problem. More crap. Beware, something smells bad here and it’s not the samples.

    • Sunny Haynes

      I have been using the company for over a year and I have never had an issue with them.

  • Jeff

    Hi, will Medicare cover the costs of this test?

    • Emily Zuo


  • JCCraves


  • Patricia Fisher Tolman

    These bastards are rip offs! I have excellent insurance and they want to charge me 5940.00! They will never see a cent! My doctor never even mentioned anything about it, I have no idea what the results were or what the stupid test was for in the first place! Don’t do it.what they need to do is eat the poop as they are pos’s!

  • Full Metal BBQ

    I have a question. I’m a subscriber to 23 and me and it gave me some really interesting information and they keep sending me updates. New things that they tested my sample for and what now. Does uBiome do the same thing? As the science changes (for better or worse), I would expect them to say “Hey, We found this in this new test!”

  • Pamoja Duncan

    This is another way for the government to get access to your DNA and see if there is any crimes you have committed in the past…


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