Microbes and social equity

UMaine researchers are asking hard questions about the right every human has to a healthy microbiome, and how these tiny organisms impact human health at large.

There is a world of microscopic organisms living in and on our bodies that make up our microbiome. The balance of these complex ecosystems are governed by our diets and the environments we inhabit. They influence our health in many ways, some of which are little understood.

Suzanne Ishaq is an assistant professor of animal and veterinary sciences in the School of Food and Agriculture at the University of Maine and founder of the Microbes and Social Equity Working Group. She studies the microbes that live in or on humans and animals. Her research explores both how microbes contribute to host health or disease, and how the host’s behavior and environment influence their microbial community. Ishaq is particularly interested in using microbes to inform broader conversations about social equity and human health.

The ubiquity of microbes makes them instrumental to life as we know it. “Microbes are everywhere, they are in our intestinal tract, in our mouth, on our skin, in this office, in the air,” Ishaq said. “We almost never think of them unless they are causing us trouble, but they are critical for life on this planet.”

So what makes a healthy microbiome? According to Ishaq, almost everything we do. “If you think about what makes a human healthy—fresh foods, plenty of sleep, safe secure housing, not too much stress, plenty of vacation time—most of those affect the microbes we interact with.”

Ishaq first became interested in this conversation when working with architects researching the built environment. They were looking at the microbes that inhabit the buildings we live and work in, which prompted conversations about social and spatial justice. In relation to microbes, food deserts are a clear example of how your environment can impact your microbiome. If your diet is governed by where you live and that environment restricts your access to fresh food, your microbiome will likely suffer because of it. Ishaq sought to advance these conversations with other researchers. 

“Sometimes I would get a lukewarm reception when I talked to established researchers about microbes and social equity because they did not understand where the connection was,” Ishaq said. “They said, ‘Okay it makes sense but you would never be able to prove it.’ I said, ‘Challenge accepted.’”

Ishaq founded the Microbes and Social Equity Working Group to connect with other researchers doing similar work or trying to have similar conversations. At first the group was primarily composed of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and early career researchers, but as they continued meeting more people joined and the group became more diverse. Members used these meetings as a sounding board to explore ideas or collaborators as they pursued their individual research projects. In 2021, the group launched a speaker series and a research symposium that persists to today. Currently, the group has more than 300 members spread across the globe. 

I think there are a lot of benefits we can all have on a small scale, changing our personal lives, changing our professional lives, and changing our communities.
Suzanne Ishaq, Assistant Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences

At UMaine, Ishaq draws from the group’s conversations to shape research and courses. Ishaq teamed up with Yanyan Li, assistant professor in food science and human nutrition at UMaine, Tao Zhang, an assistant professor at Binghamton University, and others, to study a compound in 10-day-old broccoli sprouts. Glucoraphanin is inert, but can be transformed into something that works as an anti-inflammatory in our intestines. For people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, or another intestinal disease, this could be hugely beneficial and cheaper than the cost of a medicine that does the same thing. Humans themselves do not have the enzyme needed to process glucoraphanin, but  the microbiome in our intestines does. Ishaq and collaborators research the best cooking methods for broccoli sprouts in order to deliver glucoraphanin to our intestines intact where our microbiome can capitalize on its anti-inflammatory potential. 

Ishaq’s work with the Microbes and Social Equity Working Group changed how she approaches these research projects. She ensures human subjects understand what they are being asked to do and the ramifications of participation. 

“You learn what people ask, what they are worried about, how you present information to them so they understand the risk to their confidentiality or essentially what they are giving away. We try to be a lot more inclusive and equitable in how we create these things,” Ishaq said.

“I have changed the way I think about how I communicate and where I communicate this information. There is tons of research on IBD. We know a lot but that does not necessarily mean it gets to anyone and in a way they can understand.” 

Now the research team works to communicate their findings through social media and blog posts to provide an alternative to information behind a paywall or simply not written in an accessible way. 

In her course, Ishaq tries to introduce UMaine students to this work by providing further context and asking them to engage in building a diverse research team. Historical microbiology needs context because it was done by certain people at a certain time and place in history. Understanding how science got to where it is can inform how to move it forward in an equitable way. She also asks students to assemble mock research teams for projects. This helps them consider the different voices that should be included in research, like social scientists. 

When speaking with others about this work, Ishaq admits it can be daunting to consider how to affect change, but stresses that these conversations do not have to be at a large scale. People can focus on making changes in their own lives, or at the local and state levels, like Maine’s right to breastfeed.

“The ability to breastfeed anywhere means you are now able to provide nutrients and breast-milk microbes to infants that are really helpful and can sometimes reduce your risk to allergies long term, inflammatory disease long term, and the amount of antibiotic resistant bacteria in your gut,” Ishaq said. This is a change built on quality research that could offer long-term benefits to Mainers’ health and microbiomes.

Microbes are everywhere and play an important part in our lives. People can find that intimidating but as Ishaq remarked, “Don’t panic. Microbes were here long before us and they will be here long after us.” Change happens at a personal level overtime. One meal or one new activity is not going to immediately change our microbes for better or worse. 

“I think there are a lot of benefits we can all have on a small scale, changing our personal lives, changing our professional lives and changing our communities,” Ishaq said.