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

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]

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