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Everything from what you eat to where you live and work affects your microbiome. That is why research indicated that access to healthy microbes is linked to social and economic inequalities.
Our bodies are home to a large number of small organisms, collectively called the microbiome, that are essential for human health and longevity. But not all microbiomes are created equal, according to an essay published Tuesday in PLOS Biology that highlights how access to healthy microbes is deeply linked to social and economic inequalities.
A team led by Suzanne Ishaq, an assistant professor at the University of Maine and an expert on animal microbiomes, describes examples of the human microbiome's sensitivity to discrepancies in health care, nutrition, and safe environmental standards. This "microbial inequality," as the trial calls it, raises the question of whether a healthy microbiome should be a "right" or a "legal obligation" for governments to pursue on behalf of the people.
"The diet you eat and your lifestyle can have a dramatic impact on the gut microbes you recruit and the benefits or negatives you get from them," Ishaq said in a call. "If you don't even have access to a good quality diet, you could be suffering the effects of not having those beneficial microbes and products in a way that you couldn't have imagined."
Gaps in microbial health can arise even before a person is born, because some of the most important microbes are fostered in the womb. The fetal microbiome is influenced by the mother's access to healthy foods, as well as her stress levels, which can be amplified by economic inequalities. The availability of maternity leave or social support also affects the amount of time new mothers can spend breastfeeding their babies, which is another critical factor in establishing a healthy microbiome.
These microbial patterns develop throughout our lives. Populations with access to quality nutrition will have better physical and mental health outcomes than those without, and this is reflected at the intestinal microbial level. The environmental quality of the buildings where we live and work also influences the ways of life within us, as does our general proximity to green space, on the positive side, or polluting industrial and agricultural facilities, on the negative extreme. .
Ishaq had been reflecting on these connections in his research for years, and decided to teach a special course on the subject at the University of Oregon over the summer. Fifteen undergraduate students with a wide variety of majors participated in the class, and are now co-authors of the new article. Because most of the class were not science students, the essay has an interdisciplinary approach that concludes with legal and political implications of microbial inequality, in addition to the medical dimensions.
"They were actually much more familiar with social policies than I was, given their experience, which was really cool," Ishaq said of his students.
One of the questions the team explored is whether a healthy microbiome can be considered a human right or a legal obligation. A 2011 article touched on this topic through the lens of biobanks, or the human tissue archive, but there has never been a major legal case establishing who owns an individual's microbiome, or whether people have a legal right to a microbiome. healthy.
From the perspective of Ishaq and his colleagues, the dynamic nature of the microbiome suggests that legal arguments should emphasize access to healthy microbes, rather than ownership over one's microbiome.
"You're picking up and putting off hundreds of thousands of microbial cells every day, so thinking that what you have in your gut is completely yours is probably the wrong way to think about it," Ishaq explained. "They are more like passengers than the things you own."
In other words, healthy microbes could potentially be classified as an essential resource or common good, such as clean water, safe environments, and quality public health. Ishaq hopes the trial will encourage researchers from all disciplines to think about the human microbiome as a measure of social inequalities and a roadmap for overcoming those divisions more effectively.
"It tends to be people who weren't even involved with polluting the water or growing too much food or pouring chemicals everywhere that end up being the ones who have to deal with these microbe-related problems," he said.
Addressing this problem will require the restructuring of our societies on the largest scales, in order to ensure that the small-scale life forms within us can thrive, so that we can too.