Whose microbiome is it anyway: the ethics of microbiome ownership in relation to Indigenous peoples

Ms Matilda Handsley-Davis1

1University Of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia, 2ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), Wollongong, Australia

Program stream: Research ethics (or possibly health law?)

The human microbiome – the collection of microscopic organisms living in and on the human body – is profoundly tied to human health and is itself influenced by human cultural and lifestyle factors. Several studies have now highlighted unique characteristics, such as increased diversity or distinct community compositions, of Indigenous-associated microbiomes worldwide. Hence, microbiomes of Indigenous peoples may be of particular interest to researchers seeking to characterise microbiome alterations resulting from cultural practices, ancestry, and industrialisation, understand how such changes are linked to human health, and translate this understanding into microbiome-based therapies. Adequately addressing questions of ownership, intellectual property, and benefit-sharing from microbiome research will be essential to ethically advance this field. However, ethical discussions of the microbiome to date have largely failed to foreground Indigenous contexts and perspectives. Here, we review the current state of human microbiome research involving Indigenous peoples and some potential risks and benefits for Indigenous participants in such research. We examine how the microbiome fits into existing scholarship on Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, data sovereignty and research governance. With reference to the Australian and international legal and policy context, we consider how these lessons can be translated into appropriate systems of benefit-sharing, ethical research practice and recognition of Indigenous peoples’ interests in the microbiome.

Keywords: microbiome, bioethics, Indigenous, benefit-sharing


Matilda is a PhD candidate in microbiome science and bioethics at the University of Adelaide and research assistant at Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING) Australia. Her research focuses on understanding oral microbiomes and oral health in Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders and ethical implications of microbiome research for Indigenous peoples.

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