Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health

In summer 2019, I developed and taught a course on ‘Microbes and Social Equity‘ to the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon.

In just a four-week course, I introduced 15 undergraduates from the University of Oregon Clark Honors College to microorganisms and the myriad ways in which we need them. More than that, we talked about how access to things, like nutritious foods (and especially fiber), per- and postnatal health care, or greenspace and city parks, could influence the microbial exposures you would have over your lifetime. Inequalities in that access – such as only putting parks in wealthier neighborhoods – creates social inequity in resource distribution, but it also creates inequity in microbial exposure and the effect on your health.

The course assignments were literature review essays on various topics, which were compiled into a single manuscript as the group-based final project for the course. This large version is available as a preprint; however, the published version is more focused (abstract below).

What is next for ‘Microbes and Social Equity’?

Since publishing in November, a number of researchers have connected with me, and we have formed a loose collaboration for “Microbes and Social Equity Part 2”. We have several initiatives in development, and there will be news releases as those coalesce. At this time, we are developing a journal special call, and a series of workshops/mini-symposia, both with the goal of connecting researchers and practitioners. Stay tuned!

Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health.

Suzanne L. Ishaq1,2*, Maurisa Rapp2,3, Risa Byerly2,3, Loretta S. McClellan2, Maya R. O’Boyle2, Anika Nykanen2, Patrick J. Fuller2,4, Calvin Aas2, Jude M. Stone2, Sean Killpatrick2,4, Manami M. Uptegrove2, Alex Vischer2, Hannah Wolf2, Fiona Smallman2, Houston Eymann2,5, Simon Narode2, Ellee Stapleton6, Camille C. Cioffi7, Hannah Tavalire8

  1. Biology and the Built Environment Center,  University of Oregon
  2. Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon
  3. Department of Human Physiology, University of Oregon
  4. Charles H. Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon
  5. School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon
  6. Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
  7. Counseling Psychology and Human Services, College of Education, University of Oregon
  8. Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Oregon


What do ‘microbes’ have to do with social equity? On the surface, very little. But these little organisms are integral to our health, the health of our natural environment, and even impact the ‘health’ of the environments we have built. Early life and the maturation of the immune system, our diet and lifestyle, and the quality of our surrounding environment can all impact our health. Similarly, the loss, gain, and retention of microorganisms ⁠— namely their flow from humans to the environment and back⁠ — can greatly impact our health and well-being. It is well-known that inequalities in access to perinatal care, healthy foods and fiber, a safe and clean home, and to the natural environment can create and arise from social inequality. Here, we focus on the argument that access to microorganisms as a facet of public health, and argue that health inequality may be compounded by inequitable microbial exposure.

In the Media

  1. ” UMaine prof: Inequity is creating a gut microbe gap.” Mike Tipping and Ben Chin, Maine People’s Alliance. Dec 20, 2019.
  2. Inequity takes a toll on your gut microbes, too.” Sue Ishaq,  The Conversation, Dec 4, 2019.
    1. Picked up by The Telegraph, Alton, Illinois, and other agencies
    2. Included on UMaine news
  3. All people have a right to healthy gut microbes.” Paige Jarreau and Signe Asberg, Lifeapps. Dec 3, 2019.  
  4. Rich People Have Access to Better Microbes Than Poor People, Researchers Say.” Becky Ferreira, Vice. Nov 26, 2019.
  5. Microbiome is a Human Right.” Heather Smith, Sierra. Nov 26, 2019.
  6. Life, liberty—and access to microbes?” Press release for Plos Biology. Nov 19, 2019.

Story picked up by (non-exhaustive list)

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