Symbiotic fungi

Studying explorers of the microbiome to understand humans and science

In the last decade, progress in genetic studies has enabled scientists to study a world previously unexplored: that of bacteria and viruses that co-inhabit the human body and the environment around us. Before this technology became available, we could only examine “cultivated” microbes — that’s only 5% of the total.  

These microbial communities, or microbiota, have a great impact on the health of humans and of the environment. As sequencing techniques have improved, so has the research on microbiota’s genomes: microbiomes.

Research groups from all over the world have started to map bacteria, viruses and their variants in their natural environment. According to scientists, by harvesting and examining this huge amount of data, we can predict future scenarios of the evolution of microbiomes, and therefore of human and environmental health.

Science is therefore working in the space between “us” and microbiomes. We look at the world of microbes with a new, scientific appreciation. The quest to understand the implications of this research in terms of aims, methods, instruments and results means asking ourselves questions that are not only about science and technology, but also about humanity and the relationship that humans have with what is “non-human”.

This is where anthropology comes in useful, as it studies “the meaning of being human”. Roberta Raffaetà is an anthropologist and a professor of anthropology at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. She has won a European Research Council (ERC) grant to study the way science is exploring this “new field” of microbiomes.

Professor Roberta Raffaetà

In the coming months, Professor Raffaetà will gather a multidisciplinary team of researchers with whom she will follow scientists in bio-IT labs, trying to understand their approach, desiders, emotions and outlooks when facing this 95% of matter which is so close, yet still so unknown. 

Professor Raffaetà will adopt an ethnographic perspective, but not in the “traditional” way — i.e. by travelling to a remote corner of the world, living in an indigenous community and examining its traditions, in order to gain an understanding of human characteristics. Instead, she will use an ethnographic perspective to study scientists

“Because I am studying Western culture, I must observe scientists,” says Professor Raffaetà. “We are trying to understand what “being human” means for scientists who study the human microbiome, which is to say about 90% of our cells. These cells are so important that they can influence our mood and our mental capacity. They connect us to the environment that surrounds us.”

“There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than stars in the Milky Way. People in labs feel like explorers who are constantly discovering new things,” Professor Raffaetà explains after years of observing tech-savvy biologists who make use of sophisticated sequencing techniques, big data, and artificial intelligence. 

So what happens when an anthropologist enters the lab?

“Different fields of study change their shape when they meet,” Professor Raffaetà observes. “This should lead us to reconsider what being human means, as well as our role in a world that exists mainly thanks to microbes.”

A watercolour painting inspired by the world of microbes

The idea for the ERC HealthXCross project, which is due to start in September 2021, occurred to Professor Raffaetà during her Fulbright fellowship in the USA. 

“Scientists would take samples of animals, plants, water, air and soil from different continents. They would analyse them and then aggregate the results to try and predict future scenarios of human and environmental health,” says Professor Raffaetà. These were collaborative, open science projects on a global scale.” 

These research projects beg some questions: how is data collected? Which social and political infrastructure supports these projects? What is its structure? Assuming these scenarios are actually predictions of the evolution of human and environmental health, who will benefit from them? What role might the industry play? What role might personalised medical assistance play? What might the benefits for the environment be? 

“We will analyse these issues, as well,” says Professor Raffaetà. “We will work side-by-side with scientists, living like them to study them in detail. However, we will also join scientists in their labs with a humble and empathetic attitude, in order to understand their motives. Trust can help people engage in healthy discussions even on the most challenging topics. I have learnt the language of scientists. I have learnt to see things with their perspective. We have a common goal: that of improving science.”

Author: Enrico Costa / Translator: Joangela Ceccon