The microbiome is the collection of microbes, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, that live in and on our body. These ancient allies are the result of thousands of years of human-microbe coevolution and play critical roles in maintaining our immune system and keeping us healthy.
However, Western and industrialized societies have suffered a massive reduction of microbial diversity and associated functional capacity. This is due to numerous deleterious stressors suchs as a diet low in fiber, consumption of highly processed foods, abuse and misuse of antibiotics, sedentary lifestyles, and extreme sanitation practices, to name a few.
Research has shown that a disruption, or imbalance, of the microbiome is linked to an alarming increase of autoimmune disorders and chronic inflammatory diseases. Some of these include irritable bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer, allergies, asthma, and atopy. Furthemore, these diseases exact a heavy economic toll on the healthcare systems in the billions of dollars.
The Yanomami food system, characterized by hunting, foraging, and small-scale gardening as well as an active lifestyle fully immersed in their surrounding environment, may drive their highly diverse microbiome and healthy status. It is evident that chronic, inflammatory diseases are minimal, if not absent, among isolated or minimally impacted Yanomami communities.
The Yanomami Foundation supports biocultural research that investigates the structure and function of the Yanomami microbiome and its connection to their food systems, culture, and environment. We have a particular focus on Yanomami communities that have not been adversely affected by exposure to antibiotics, highly processed foods, industrial toxins, and pollutants.
Closing the knowledge gap in the link between the microbiome and human health takes us one step closer to truly understanding disease, health, and the human body. This important research not only benefits humanity across the globe, but helps us understand the unintended consequences of transculturation among the Yanomami and the important measures needed to protect their robust microbiome and traditional lifestyles.
Summary of our bioethical approach
With the checkered history of bio-piracy and exploitation of indigenous peoples, we set out to establish important precedent in ethical research by including the Yanomami people as research partners and active participants. Most importantly, our work sits on the strong foundation of building relationships with our partner communities.
Transparent dialogue is a beginning step for confronting those past transgressions committed by scientists and researchers. Our team spends as much time as needed to hold open discussions and patiently answering all of their questions.
We maintain continuous dialogue to explain why this research is important to their health, environment, and traditional way of life. Demonstrations are carried out to simulate the sampling process and explain how the instruments are used and what they measure. We respect their desires to learn and become actively involved.
The Yanomami people play a necessary and critical role in biocultural research by participating as translators, guides, and research assistants. They are co-producers of knowledge and foster an enviornment of respectful exchange of information and skills. They eagerly engage with the research team to learn how to use various scientific instruments and carry out protocols. This helps to a deepen their understanding of the research goals and create an atmosphere of inclusivity and collaboration. We envision that someday, Yanomami youth will have opportunities to become a principal investigators of scientific projects representing their own people.
The Yanomami microbiome project is a key driver of discovery research across unknown frontiers in microbiology and health.