An indigenous community-first approach to more ethical microbial research

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The Penn State Ancient Biomolecules research environment uses a combination of ancient DNA, anthropogenic microbial genetics, and experimental models to explore and identify mechanisms of microbial community change and adaptation. Researchers are working to translate these mechanisms to improve the world around us today. Credit: Penn State

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The Penn State Ancient Biomolecules research environment uses a combination of ancient DNA, anthropogenic microbial genetics, and experimental models to explore and identify mechanisms of microbial community change and adaptation. Researchers are working to translate these mechanisms to improve the world around us today. Credit: Penn State

Each person harbors trillions of microbes, such as bacteria and viruses, on their skin, in the organs that make up their digestive tract, and in their mouths, collectively making up their microbiome. Microbial research can lead to medical breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases such as inflammatory bowel syndrome and diabetes.

According to Laura Weirich, associate professor of anthropology and bioethics at Penn State, microbial samples from indigenous communities play an important role in advancing Western medicine, but those same communities are often excluded from the research process and may miss out on the benefits. As a result of their contributions to science.

Two perspective pieces published today (Sept. 28). Natural Microbiology An international team of non-indigenous and indigenous researchers, including Weyrich, is looking to fix the problem. By focusing on the questions below, the linked articles develop a framework for ethical microbial research practices that involve indigenous communities and ensure that these communities benefit from their contributions.

Weirich; Weyrich’s former graduate student Matilda Handsley-Davies, R&D communications specialist at the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping; and Tsimshian and Alyssa Bader, assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University, discuss their research guidelines and why indigenous communities should have ownership of their microbial samples.

Why are researchers interested in studying indigenous microbes?

Weirich: The biggest factor driving global microbial diversity is whether or not someone lives in an industrialized country. Industrialized microbes are now linked to many chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Today, microbiome researchers believe that indigenous peoples’ microbes—as a proxy for non-industrialized microbes—may provide new solutions to a wide range of chronic diseases. Sometimes these are diseases that do not affect all indigenous communities, which can result in a process of extraction, where researchers obtain samples and information from indigenous communities to address problems that do not affect indigenous peoples. Research should be equitable and beneficial to all involved.

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Bader: Indigenous microbiomes are increasingly used as a point of comparison for studying industrialized populations, particularly to understand how factors such as diet and our environment affect the composition and function of our microbiota, with consequences for our health. Microbiomes associated with indigenous populations have been designed as valuable resources for restoring lost microbial diversity and treating chronic diseases in industrialized populations, but these research directions often do not focus on the research needs or interests of indigenous communities, on whom researchers rely for microbial data.

Handsley-Davies: There are many reasons, but I think one of the biggest drivers is the growing popularity of the idea that understanding the microbiomes of indigenous peoples can somehow help solve chronic health problems that are rampant in the industrialized world. Another reason is to better understand the health problems that affect indigenous communities and are linked to the microbiome.

In one of the papers you introduce ’The Right to Biodiversity’ As an ethical concept. What is microbial ownership and why is it important?

Weirich: This means that someone can own or claim ownership of their own bacteria. The health-promoting 'next generation’ of probiotics comes from people donating their microbes – not yogurt or fermented foods, so building the framework for people to own their microbes can benefit or profit from the commercialization of these microbes. This framework is important to provide equal benefits to research participants, research groups and companies seeking to commercialize one’s microbiota to develop 'next generation’ probiotics.

Handsley-Davies: These debates about ownership are particularly important because who sees the microbial community as 'owning’ plays a large role in determining who receives commercial and non-commercial benefits from microbial research. At the moment, we see a lot of benefits going to non-Aboriginal researchers and institutions. Part of the promise we see in microbe rights is to help restructure this system, protect indigenous microbes from exploitation, and ensure that indigenous communities reap meaningful benefits from research on their own microbes.

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What are some best practices researchers can follow when working with indigenous communities in microbial research?

Weirich: One of my mentors asked, „What should I do for service?” He once suggested reaching out to communities to ask. Rather than going into a community and asking if they would help with my research. Research requires building meaningful relationships with communities and understanding how you can be a contributing and respected member of that community. Our article provides a starting point for researchers who wish to work in this space.

Bader: Research with indigenous communities requires deep collaboration, meaning that researchers work with communities as research partners. In these research partnerships, it is critical that researchers uphold indigenous sovereignty throughout the research process. This includes developing research questions, establishing protocols for research consent and data management, and ensuring that Indigenous community partners have a central role in interpreting and communicating results.

Handsley-Davies: Be open-minded and take the time to understand and respect the community’s perspectives and priorities. Be willing to leave behind your own culturally specific understanding. It is important to openly discuss the risks and benefits of a research project and agree on how these will be shared at the outset.

In your paper, you discuss The concept of relationship. What is it and how does it apply to microbial research?

Bader: Relationalism is the idea that we are interconnected with each other and our world. Into this relationship comes the responsibility to act with care and respect. We use kinship as a framework to emphasize how humans, our microbes, and our environment relate to each other, and our research ethics must recognize this relationship. When scientists study the microbes of indigenous peoples, they are not just studying the microbes, but engaging with the indigenous communities that live with these microbes. Microbial scientists must consider how to enter into a respectful research relationship with indigenous peoples and their microbes.

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Weirich: Our papers focus on relationships in several ways, focusing on interactions between researchers and communities, as well as the relationship between people and their microbiomes. We urge researchers to build and appreciate these relationships in their research to minimize potential harm and expand the potential of what is possible today in microbial research.

How will the ideas and guidance you present benefit everyone?

Weirich: Although this framework was developed in collaboration with Aboriginal colleagues and is focused on working with Aboriginal communities, its relevance is far reaching. Community-centered approaches with shared benefits for researchers and communities should be a fundamental principle of any research project. I sincerely hope that field research teams will incorporate some of these principles into their projects so that scientists can conduct impactful research at all levels.

Handsley-Davies: In the ideas and guidelines laid out in these two papers, it can be seen that microbial research is indeed at the forefront of establishing ethical research partnerships and sharing benefits with indigenous communities. As we say in an article, here we see an opportunity for researchers in this field to avoid the mistakes of the past.

More information:
Matilda Handsley-Davies et al., Microbiome Rights for Indigenous Peoples, Natural Microbiology (2023) DOI: 10.1038/s41564-023-01470-3

Alisa C. A relational framework for microbial research with indigenous communities, Bader et al. Natural Microbiology (2023) DOI: 10.1038/s41564-023-01471-2

Press Information:
Natural Microbiology

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