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The clinical utility of microbiome biomarkers depends on the reliable and reproducible nature of comparative results. Underappreciation of the variation associated with common demographic, health, and behavioral factors may confound associations of interest and generate false positives. Here, we present the Midwestern Reference Panel (MWRP), a resource for comparative gut microbiome studies conducted in the Midwestern United States. We analyzed the relationships between demographic and health behavior–related factors and the microbiota in this cohort, and estimated their effect sizes. Most variables investigated were associated with the gut microbiota. Specifically, body mass index (BMI), race, sex, and alcohol use were significantly associated with microbial β-diversity (P < 0.05, unweighted UniFrac). BMI, race and alcohol use were also significantly associated with microbial α-diversity (P < 0.05, species richness). Tobacco use showed a trend toward association with the microbiota (P < 0.1, unweighted UniFrac). The effect sizes of the associations, as quantified by adjusted R2 values based on unweighted UniFrac distances, were small (< 1% for all variables), indicating that these factors explain only a small percentage of overall microbiota variability. Nevertheless, the significant associations between these variables and the gut microbiota suggest that they could still be potential confounders in comparative studies and that controlling for these variables in study design, which is the main objective of the MWRP, is important for increasing reproducibility in comparative microbiome studies.
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