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New study shows need for inclusive approach to Indigenous microbiome research

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Researcher analyzing DNA in samples. Photo Courtesy: National Institutes of Health

Research on the trillions of microorganisms that make up a person’s or ecosystem’s microbiome can lead to medical breakthroughs to treat diseases, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome and diabetes, and discoveries that transform conservation efforts. 

According to a study published in Nature Microbiology and co-authored by a University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa associate professor, microbiome samples from Indigenous communities have the potential to further the fields of medicine, ecology, oceanography and more. However, those same communities often have been excluded from the research process and may miss out on the benefits that result from their contributions to science.

“Unfortunately, Indigenous peoples have experienced exploitation and harm due to microbiome research,” said co-author Rosie Alegado, associate professor in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. “In this publication, we propose a framework centered on relationality among Indigenous peoples, researchers and microbes, to guide ethical microbiome research. Our framework foregrounds accountability so that historical power imbalances that favored researcher perspectives and interests can expand to provide space for Indigenous worldviews in pursuit of Indigenous research agency and sovereignty.”

Relationality concepts in microbiome research with Indigenous peoples. Photo Courtesy: Bader et al, 2023

Mutually beneficial partnerships

Ethical inclusion of Indigenous communities in microbiome research can provide benefits for all populations and reinforce mutually beneficial partnerships between researchers and the public.

“Microbes associated with Indigenous peoples have been framed as valuable resources to restore lost microbial diversity and treat chronic disease in industrialized populations, but these research directions often do not center the research needs or interests of the Indigenous communities that researchers rely on for microbiome data,” said Alyssa Bader, lead author of the study and assistant professor at McGill University.


The article lays out a framework for ethical microbiome research practices that include Indigenous communities and ensure that these communities reap the benefits from their contributions. The researchers discuss the Indigenous principle of relationality, in which people are interconnected to each other and the world around them, as a framework to guide human microbiome researchers to work in partnership with Indigenous people.

Moving forward

Moving forward the authors see possible next steps:

(1) researchers working with Indigenous communities should assess their practices to determine how best to move forward with their research in an ethical manner; 


(2) institutions that support researchers should actively assess their own intellectual property policies to ensure that Indigenous peoples with whom they interact retain appropriate control over their data; and 

(3) funders and institutions should be required to adhere to a relational framework with Indigenous peoples involved in research they support. 

The authors say that research with Indigenous communities should be deeply collaborative and uphold Indigenous sovereignties throughout the research process. 

“It is essential that Indigenous community partners have key roles in co-development of research questions, establishment of protocols for consent and data stewardship and governance, as well as interpretation and communication of results,” said Alegado.


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