Do you own your germs? My new piece for the New York Times on micro-bioethics

By Carl Zimmer | December 4, 2011 10:20 am

There are 100 trillion microbes that live in your body. Do you own them? Do they deserve the same protections as your own genes and cells? If someone genetically alters a microbe and claims that if you swallow it, it will let you lose weight, should that living germ be regulated as a drug?

These are a few of the questions I mull in a piece that appears in the Sunday Review section of today’s New York Times. I’ve been writing a lot about the microbial world for a few years now, but only recently did I encounter a group of bioethicists who are now pondering what sort of ground rules we should set up to govern science and medicine as we gain understanding and power over the microbiome. Check it out.

If you’re interested in reading more about all this, here are a few new papers (some free, some behind paywalls).

The Human Microbiome Project: lessons from human genomicsTrends in Microbiology (in press)

“Who owns your poop?”: insights regarding the intersection of human microbiome research and the ELSI aspects of biobanking and related studies, Kieran O’Doherty, BMC Medical Genomics 4 (1), (07 Oct 2011) info:doi/10.1186/1755-8794-4-72

Community Health Care: Therapeutic Opportunities in the Human Microbiome Justin Sonnenburg and Michael Fischbach, Science Translational Medicine 3 (78), April 13, 2011 info:doi/10.1126/scitranslmed.3001626

There will also be a book coming out next year edited by Rosamond Rhodes of Mount Sinai Medical School, but it’s not on the radar just yet. For now, here’s a powerpoint of a recent presentation from her research group (pdf)

[Image: Andrea Wan for the New York Times]


Comments (9)

  1. Do you know how that figure of 100 trillion microbes is calculated? I’ve seen several sources claim that we are only about 10% human by cell count and the number of somatic cells is 10^13 while the microbes are 10^14.

    This blog suggests that we have more like 50 trillion somatic cells based on weight.

    I’m guessing that microbe numbers aren’t estimated by weight as I don’t see any easy way to weigh just their mass which, given the relative difference in sizes, is probably quite small.

  2. Tanya McPositron

    And the answer is: No. Germs are open source. The more appropriate question is this: Do they own us?

  3. Nice answer Tanya, I agree with open source as well. And that is an interesting question that leads me to interesting places.

    Maybe we’re bacterial computers, evolved for the purpose of defending them against impact events–a sort of planetary immune system.

    It makes a nice metaphor since so often it is the fever from our immune system overreaction that kills us, and not the pathogen’s direct activity.

    I’m inspired by Lewis Thomas on the immune response to gram-negative bacteria: All of this seems unnecessary, panic-driven…. It is, basically, a response to propaganda…we tear ourselves to pieces because of symbols, and we are more vulnerable to this than to any host of predators. We are, in effect, at the mercy of our own Pentagons, most of the time.

    There are other uses for a bacterial computer I suppose. Maybe the bacteria have decided to explore the universe. Maybe they just wanted twinkies.

  4. A lot of research – including my own – is done through the use of clinical samples of particular pathogens. Once isolated and characterized, you can get a lot of research mileage out of them. This has been going on for over 100 years though isn’t this really the same as this recent microbiome bioethics debate?

  5. Basically you are a cultivating farmer and your body is the farm.
    You will harvest the results of years of your farm cultivating an interactive flora that resides well enough with your other flora.
    You have the right to keep them to your self or sell them off to a proper distributor.
    The problem is a distributor has the ability to continue to grow your flora, on their own, bypassing your rights to ownership.
    copyright, patent, trademark… or trade secret you should decide and do it early before others can grow your germs.

    The poop-enema comes to mind.
    Good luck.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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