Next time you’re feeling lonely, just remember that are almost 2,000 bacterial species living in your gut.

Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) identified thousands of previously unknown microbes roaming around the human gut.

The study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples, known as metagenomics, is a bit like reconstructing hundreds of puzzles after mixing all the pieces together, according to Rob Finn, group leader at EMBL-EBI.

“[And] without knowing what the final image is meant to look like, and after completely removing a few pieces from the mix just to make it that bit harder,” he said in a statement.

Luckily, we live in an age of computer simulations and algorithms.

“Researchers are now at a stage where they can use a range of computational tools to complement and sometimes guide lab work, in order to uncover new insights into the human gut,” Finn said.

The results, published in the journal Nature, highlight global differences in the composition of gut bacteria—and the importance of studied samples reflecting that diversity.

Scientists are getting closer to creating a complete list of common microbes in the North American and European gut.

But despite leveraging what postdoctoral fellow Alexandre Almeida called “the most comprehensive public databases of gastrointestinal bacteria,” there remains a significant lack of data from other regions.

“The few South American and African datasets we had access to for this study revealed significant diversity not present in the former populations,” Finn said. “This suggests that collecting data from underrepresented populations is essential if we want to achieve a truly comprehensive picture of the composition of the human gut.”

In the future, the team’s analysis methods can be applied to larger, more diverse datasets, enabling further discovery.

“Research such as this is helping us create a so-called blueprint of the human gut,” according to Trevor Lawley, group leader at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “Which in the future could help us understand human health and disease better and could even guide diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal diseases.”

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