Our Microbiomes, Ourselves

04GRAYMATTER-articleLargeCarl Zimmer in the NYT Sunday Review:

IMAGINE a scientist gently swabs your left nostril with a Q-tip and finds that your nose contains hundreds of species of bacteria. That in itself is no surprise; each of us is home to some 100 trillion microbes. But then she makes an interesting discovery: in your nose is a previously unknown species that produces a powerful new antibiotic. Her university licenses it to a pharmaceutical company; it hits the market and earns hundreds of millions of dollars. Do you deserve a cut of the profits?

It is a tricky question, because it defies our traditional notions of property and justice. You were not born with the germ in your nose; at some point in your life, it infected you. On the other hand, that microbe may be able to grow and reproduce only in a human nose. You provided it with an essential shelter. And its antibiotics may help keep you healthy, by killing disease-causing germs that attempt to invade your nose.

Welcome to the confusing new frontier of ethics: our inner ecosystem. In recent years, scientists have discovered remarkable complexity and power in the microbes that live inside us. We depend on this so-called microbiome for our well-being: it helps break down our food, synthesize vitamins and shield against disease-causing germs.

“We used to think of ourselves as separate from nature,” said Rosamond Rhodes, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Now it’s not just us. It’s us and them.”

For bioethicists, one of the most important questions is what our microbes can reveal about ourselves. Studies have revealed, for example, that people who are sick with certain diseases tend to have distinctive collections of microbes. Someday we may get important clues to people’s health from a survey of their microbes. Professor Rhodes argues that this sort of information will deserve the same protection as information about our own genes. Your germs are your own business, in other words.