The microbiome is the collection of microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live in and on our body. These ancient allies result from 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 in microbial diversity and associated functional capacity. This is due to numerous stressors such as a diet low in fiber, consumption of highly processed foods, abuse and misuse of antibiotics, sedentary lifestyles, extreme sanitation practices, and environmental destruction.
Research has shown that a microbiome disruption, or imbalance, is linked to an alarming increase in autoimmune disorders and chronic inflammatory diseases. These include irritable bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer, allergies, asthma, and atopy. Furthermore, these diseases exact a heavy economic toll on the healthcare systems in the billions of dollars.
The Yanomami food system, characterized by hunting, foraging, small-scale gardening, and an active lifestyle fully immersed in their surrounding natural environment, may drive their highly diverse microbiome and nutritional status. As a result, 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. There is a 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 critical research not only benefits humanity across the globe but helps us understand the unintended consequences of transculturation among the Yanomami and the essential 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 an important precedent in ethical research by including the Yanomami people as research partners and active participants. Most importantly, our work is the foundation of building relationships with our partner communities.
Transparent dialogue is a beginning step for confronting past transgressions and building trust. Therefore, our team spends as much time as needed to hold open discussions and patiently answer their questions.
We maintain continuous dialogue to explain why this research is essential 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 an essential and critical role in biocultural research by participating as translators, guides, and research assistants. They are co-producers of knowledge and foster an environment 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 deepen their understanding of the research goals and creates an atmosphere of inclusivity and collaboration. We envision that someday, Yanomami youth will have opportunities to become principal investigators of scientific projects representing their own communities throughout the entire research process.
The Yanomami microbiome project is a crucial driver of discovery research across unknown frontiers in microbiology and health.