Microbes and Social Equity

Aug. 18, 2021

Microbes can be found in almost every part of the Earth, as can social injustice. On the surface, the 2 seem unrelated. However, the connection between microbes and social equity is becoming increasingly explicit. In recent years, microbiome science has established that microbes in the gut, water, soil, plants and air are all vital to human health. These habitats contain a multitude of beneficial and pathogenic organisms, and the composition of active microbes in a community often dictate the health and resilience of that ecosystem. Access to beneficial microbes is unevenly distributed across different communities, however, which makes it harder for everyone to achieve positive health outcomes.
The links between social equity and microbes can be quite clear at times; for example, the gut microbial community can change depending on diet, but many people, particularly economically underserved communities in racially segregated city zones, lack access to nutrient-rich food that enables a robust gut microbiome. Such lack of access to healthy food, known as a food desert, is well-explored in the realm of public policy and sociology. Food deserts are known to be associated with higher incidence of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity, thereby making access to healthy gut microbes an issue of inequity. The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted every part of the world, but incarcerated populations are particularly vulnerable, given that prison environments can promote high rates of transmission for many infectious diseases.

Food deserts in the U.S. (2010).
Food deserts in the U.S. (2010).

Such health inequities are even more pronounced in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) and populations who have historically been marginalized by healthcare systems. Infectious disease burden is particularly high in countries with biogeoclimatic conditions that favor pathogen transmission, which is the case for many regions in South America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Higher disease burden, coupled with a deficit in internal funding and trained personnel for clinical microbiology research, leads to a disproportionate concentration of emerging and re-emerging diseases, as well as antimicrobial resistant pathogens, ravaging these areas. Of the studies interrogating how factors like access to clean drinking water and housing patterns affect community health in LMICs, this study from South Africa is striking because it documents the effect of racially segregated housing on access to potable water free of enteropathogenic Escherichia coli‚Äč.
Unfortunately, this collection of examples is only the tip of the iceberg. Many more invisible disparities are likely being missed because interdisciplinary research that links microbiology with the impacts of inequitable public policies tends to be rare. For example, it is well established that practices such as mining degrade the quality of soil and air in and around the mining site. Residents of those areas, particularly Indigenous communities, experience irreversible shifts in their environmental microbial communities. However, it is still unclear how the human inhabitants of mining zones are impacted by these changes; microbial communities are important determinants of air, food and water quality, which are essential for human survival.
More interdisciplinary research is needed in order to develop a comprehensive understanding and actionable plans to address such issues. For example, improving gut health will require not only a knowledge of science, but also integration with disciplines like urban planning, transportation and infrastructure, economics and sociology to be truly effective. Many STEM fields like microbiology are often housed in different university departments than areas such as sociology, public policy or history, which can curb collaborations and cross-talk between researchers specializing in these areas. However, incorporating an understanding of social justice into the field of microbiology will mean building principles and theories of social equity into lesson plans and curricula at an introductory level. Existing and future research will need to inform public policy around social equity, which involves collaborating with science policymakers to effect change that will expand access to healthy microbiomes.
The Microbes and Equity (MSE) working group, founded and led by Dr. Suzanne Ishaq, is one of the groups leading such efforts. The group currently consists of 87 members from various career stages, disciplines, countries and research areas, spanning ecosystem ecology to developmental psychology. A recently concluded speaker series on this theme attracted over 400 participants for 12 talks from a range of disciplines, an indication that this idea is becoming increasingly relevant to more scientists. For early career researchers like Drs. Hannah Tavalire and Mallory Choudoir, conversations with other members have helped identify disparities in access to 'healthy' microbes in their own research on the early life gut microbiome and environmental microbiology, respectively. In Choudoir's words, "MSE challenges us to consider microbes within human social constructs as crucial elements of social justice and environmental justice. MSE is a really inspiring, truly multidisciplinary group, and I'm so excited about the future collaborations that will come from this." This is just one example of how microbiologists can lead efforts in order to create a more equitable and accessible society.

Many microbes researchers work with are important to human and environmental health. There might be many ways to make this research more equitable, including but not limited to serving as a resource for policymakers, ensuring that fieldwork and sample collection do not damage the environment and local communities and working to share knowledge and data with the human populations involved in a study. Proximity to the right microbes is critical to the One Health concept, the idea that the health of human beings is closely connected to the health of animals, plants and our shared environment. Linking microbiology research with social equity principles is the logical next step.
Read the mSystems article from the MSE working group on opportunities for integrating microbiology and social equity work.


Author: Janani Hariharan

Janani Hariharan
Janani Hariharan is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University.