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Scientific colonialism or progress? Chronic diseases could be cured by gut bacteria from hunter-gatherer societies

David Good visits his mother (back) in her village and researches the treatment of chronic diseases (image: Yanomami Foundation)
David Good visits his mother (back) in her village and researches the treatment of chronic diseases (image: Yanomami Foundation)
Microbiomes from hunter-gatherer societies are being used to help people in industrialised countries fight chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. However, this type of research also raises ethical concerns about biopiracy and scientific colonialism.

Scientists are studying the gut microbiome of hunter-gatherer societies to understand the health benefits of a more 'pristine' microbiome. This research raises ethical questions, but also hopes for new treatments for diseases ranging from arthritis and depression to Alzheimer's.

It’s very clear in industrialized nations we have lost many species that were probably fundamental to human evolution. They’ve just become extinct.

- Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiome scientist at Stanford University

People in industrialised countries are increasingly suffering from chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. These diseases are linked to a number of factors, including unhealthy diets, environmental pollution and overuse of antibiotics.

In contrast, hunter-gatherers have a significantly lower risk of developing these diseases, which could be linked to the state of their gut microbiome. Researchers have found that the gut bacteria of hunter-gatherer societies are more diverse and healthier than those of people in industrialised societies, after studying the faeces of the Yanomami in the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza in northern Tanzania, for example. They may have more types of bacteria associated with good health.

For example, in a study published by Justin Sonnenburg, researchers found several million protein families in the intestines of the Hazda society, more than half of which had not previously been identified in the human gut, as well as tens of thousands of microbial genomes that had not previously been recorded.

The more diversity you have, the more [microbial] genes you carry. And the more genes you carry, the more biochemical work you can do.

-  Emma Allen-Vercoe, a microbiologist at the University of Guelph in Canada

Bacterial species play an important role in digestion, nutrient absorption, the immune system and mental health. The reasons for the differences in the microbiome between hunter-gatherers and people in industrialised countries are complex and not fully understood. However, the following factors are thought to play a role

  • Diet: Hunter-gatherer societies tend to have a more varied and healthier diet than people in industrialised nations. They eat more plant foods, less processed foods and less sugar.
  • Environmental factors: Hunter-gatherer societies live in a natural environment that is less contaminated with pollutants and antibiotics.
  • Lifestyle: Hunter-gatherers tend to be more active than people in industrialised societies.

Searching for missing microbes in hunter-gatherer societies is a complex task that needs to be done carefully. It is not yet clear whether there is such a thing as a perfect microbiome, or how it might be achieved. Nevertheless, this research could lead to a better understanding of the microbiome and the development of new treatments for disease.

Yanomami Foundation
Yanomami Foundation

Ethics and scientific colonialism

It is also important that microbiome research follows ethical guidelines. The rights and well-being of the communities studied must be respected. The researchers interviewed do not want to engage in biopiracy:

It’s the idea of industrialized nations going into low- and middle-income countries and taking advantage of their resources for their own gain. Going into these areas that are under-resourced and taking from them, and not giving them ownership over these things that are coming from their people and their lands.

- Justin Sonnenburg

Behavioural ecologist and human biologist Alyssa N. Crittenden, who also uses terms like 'scientific colonialism', explains:

We are looking to extract species to better our own health without any return to the community. If that’s not biopiracy, I don’t know what is. [It] often happens when elite groups—such as white American researchers—take resources from less influential communities. I’m the first to admit that I think I made a lot of mistakes, and I did things incorrectly.

Crittenden also adds about an inhabitant of Hadza:

She shared with me that she no longer wanted to participate in any work that required biological samples—saliva, breast milk, urine, blood, or feces. She said that she was exhausted with all of the research teams that come in, do a project… don’t speak Swahili, don’t know the community … she was getting tired of giving parts of her body to strangers.

The scientist and founder of the Yanomami Society, David Good, is himself half Yanomami and half American. His way of working could bridge the gap between medical progress and ethical behaviour:

The microbes belong to David, essentially, and the Yanomami Foundation he’s started. Essentially we’re borrowing this stuff. And the idea is that if we find something interesting that has some [intellectual property] … that will go to benefiting the Yanomami.

- Allen-Vercoe

Woman fetching water from a river (image: Yanomami Foundation)
Woman fetching water from a river (image: Yanomami Foundation)
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> Expert Reviews and News on Laptops, Smartphones and Tech Innovations > News > News Archive > Newsarchive 2023 12 > Scientific colonialism or progress? Chronic diseases could be cured by gut bacteria from hunter-gatherer societies
Nicole Dominikowski, 2023-12-27 (Update: 2023-12-28)