While most biomarker research to date has utilized blood, urine, or saliva, the session “The Microbiome in Population Health Research: Promise or Hype?” at the IAPHS 2018 conference ushered in the new era of “poop-ulation” health.
Prof. Pamela Herd of Georgetown University and P.I. of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) highlighted the promise of the microbiome (the millions of bacteria that live in, on, and around us) as “the ultimate life course exposure” and a potential mechanism underlying life course social influences on health. Recent work from the WLS found that spouses share more similar gut microbiomes compared to siblings or unrelated individuals, but this was only true for spouses that reported a close relationship. Twitter quickly predicted a race to commercially available marriage-compatibility poop kits, while social scientists wondered how much shared microbes might contribute to observed associations between social relationships, social isolation, and health.
Audrey Renson, PhD student in Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, won the prize for amazing data visualization, showing associations between socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity and the composition of the oral microbiome in a diverse New York City sample. Both the gut and the oral microbiome are associated with various chronic diseases for which there are known health disparities, pointing to the opportunity for investigation of this new area of biology in social and population health research.
Prof. Ken Krauter from the University of Colorado provided a biologist’s view on the microbiome, showing that while there is a certain degree of heritability of the microbiome, there is still much room for understanding the “environmental” influences for which population health researchers can lend tremendous expertise in theory and measurement.
Finally, discussant Dr. Jessica Faul of the University of Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging thoughtfully put the poop in perspective by situating the field on the extreme upward slope of the biomarker “hype curve,” heading towards the “peak of inflated expectations” and “trough of disillusionment” before arriving at a steady state of productive research. She warned of being mindful of practical measurement issues that inevitably arise with new technologies and their application in population data collection, and how this can potentially distort our findings.
Overall, the session provided insightful context for how population health scientists can both learn from and contribute to this new area of biology. Given the plasticity of the microbiome, there is great hope in the “promise” of the microbiome as a modifiable mediator of social influences on health, whether “downstream” through probiotics, fecal transplants, or “upstream” through social environments such as food and drug policy that impact microbial colonization across the life course.
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