Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity

In just a four-week course in 2019 when I was working at the University of Oregon, I introduced 15 undergraduates from the UO 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), pre- 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.

By the end of the that four weeks, the students, several guest researchers, and myself condensed these discussions into a single paper (a mighty undertaking, indeed). Interest in this paper sparked the formation of the Microbes and Social Equity working group.

During the course, a number of guest lecturers were kind enough to lend us their expertise and their perspective:

Ishaq, S.L., Rapp, M., Byerly, R., McClellan, L.S., O’Boyle, M.R., Nykanen, A., Fuller, P.J., Aas, C., Stone, J.M., Killpatrick, S., Uptegrove, M.M., Vischer, A., Wolf, H., Smallman, F., Eymann, H., Narode, S., Stapleton, E., Cioffi, C.C., Tavalire, H..  2019Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health. PLoS Biology 17(11): e3000536.


What do “microbes” have to do with social equity? These microorganisms are integral to our health, that of our natural environment, and even the “health” of the environments we build. The loss, gain, and retention of microorganisms—their flow between humans and the environment—can greatly impact our health. It is well-known that inequalities in access to perinatal care, healthy foods, quality housing, and the natural environment can create and arise from social inequality. Here, we focus on the argument that access to beneficial microorganisms is a facet of public health, and health inequality may be compounded by inequitable microbial exposure.

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