Exploring social and ethical aspects of microbiome engineering


Inside homes, schools, and other indoor spaces where we spend most of our lives, we are surrounded by a multitude of microorganisms. However, not much is known about how these microbial communities form and function – or how they interact with the human body.

With the goal of better understanding and improving the health of our built environments, an interdisciplinary team of researchers is seeking to develop diagnostic tools and engineering approaches to help reduce the number of harmful microbes while encouraging beneficial microbes. . This work is at the forefront of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering (PreMiEr). Announced in August, the center is led by Duke University with partners from four other North Carolina universities, including NC State.

NC State will play a key role in the center’s work by examining the societal, ethical, and policy implications of advances in microbiome engineering. Jennifer Kuzma, Goodnight Foundation-NCGSK Professor Emeritus in the School of Public and International Affairs and Co-Director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, is Associate Director of PreMiEr and will lead efforts to explore and address attitudes, risks and public risk. multidisciplinary perspectives related to research.

We caught up with Kuzma to find out more about the job and why it’s needed.

What perspective will your team bring to this project?

Part of the work of this center will involve the potential manipulation of the microbiome. In other words, either engineer the combination of bacteria present in a built environment to make it a healthier place to live and work, or manipulate the microbiome in the built environment through genetic engineering. These two approaches are accompanied by hesitations or societal concerns that we must take into account.

Jennifer Kuzma.

Our social and ethical implications team will work with scientists and engineers from the start, and there will be two-way learning. Not only will we learn more about their challenges and their work, but they will answer some of the ideas we have about the societal implications, concerns and hopes for the technology. Because if you start with the audience in mind in the beginning, you’re more likely to be successful in the end.

What are examples of societal or ethical issues related to microbiome engineering?

Privacy is important. You don’t necessarily think about it, but when you enter a building, you share the microbiome with that space. Your microbiome is shared with other people and with the physical environment. There is a kind of continuous flow of microorganisms, and the researchers were able to correlate the signatures of certain individuals in built environments. And so there is concern that people could identify individuals by their microbiome signature – kind of like a fingerprint.

Of course, another big issue is the safety of actual microbiome engineering. You want to make sure that you are increasing the benefits to human health and decreasing the risks, not the other way around. So that’s another important part of what our core is going to look at: security and risk analysis. We all have different risk tolerances. And we also believe that security concepts are different depending on cultural and individual values. We will therefore investigate these components, not only by doing risk analysis, but also by looking at the societal dimensions of risk and safety – and what they mean for different communities.

There are also elements of microbiome property. So, who owns the microbiome or the technology? We share it with other people in the building, so patents and intellectual property for this kind of technology is a complex issue.

With backgrounds ranging from biomolecular engineering to fungal microbiomes, researchers from five North Carolina state colleges bring their expertise to the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering.

Benjamin Callahanassistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, will be part of the project’s data analysis team.

Nathan Crookassistant professor in the College of Engineering, will be part of a team developing tools to target delivery and suppression of desired genetic traits.

Kevin Garciaassistant professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will be part of a team studying fungal microbiomes.

Jennifer Kuzmathe Goodnight Foundation-NCGSK Professor Emeritus in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, will serve as principal investigator for NC State, co-PI for the center, and lead for social and the team of implications.

Yihui-Zhouassociate professor at the College of Sciences, will be co-leader of the predictive microbiome modeling team.

How will your team engage and incorporate audience attitudes into this research?

Part of our work will be to monitor and track, at a national level, public opinion on microbiome engineering in built environments – and to identify public concerns and hopes for the technology. We will therefore regularly carry out quantitative work and surveys, as well as qualitative focus groups and engagement exercises.

It will be very important to engage historically marginalized, underrepresented and indigenous groups, as using their microbiome or manipulating their built environments can be exploitative. You want to make sure that you’re not doing this in a vacuum for communities, but you’re doing it for communities – especially those that have been hurt in the past by technology, or poor environmental conditions, or poor public health .

The diversity of viewpoints also improves science. It’s important for ethical reasons, but it’s also important for quality. When you have more and more diverse types of people looking at an issue, really wonderful things can happen with that expanded expertise.

This article originally appeared in College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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