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Playlist "35C3: Refreshing Memories"

Hacking the Human Microbiome


The human microbiome is a diverse community of bacteria that lives inside us. Their contribution towards our personal well-being or sickness is controversially discussed within the scientific world and, likewise, in our society. First attempts to rationally (reverse-)engineer the human microbiome are hyped in medicine and within the DIY biohacking scene. The implications of these endeavours potentially concern several aspects of our life: eating habits, fitness state, susceptibility for infections, aging, and cancer. But what about ethical aspects of hacking the human microbiome? How can biosafety be maintained? Are there any data security issues? I will seriously discuss the state-of-the-art and future directions of the research to show whether actual hacking of the human microbiome is rather science or fiction.

First, I will answer some general questions to lay the foundation: What is the human microbiome? How is it studied? Why is there a hype at the moment?
Subsequently, I will explain fundamental concepts of human microbiome research: Faecal microbiome transplantations (“eating poop”), microbiome enrichment (“taking probiotics”), microbiome depletion (“swallowing antibiotics”), and rational, targeted interventions (“getting or killing a single bug”).
This will be followed by an introduction into different experimental and computational methods, that are being performed to discern the complex interplay between bacteria and our human body. The data obtained from these analyses are hard to interpret. The conclusions drawn from the data hardly move beyond associations. The advancement of the field from discovered correlations to causations is demanded but rarely achieved. I will outline major challenges in measurement techniques and analysis pipelines. The debate about the proper acquisition, encryption, storage and accessibility of genetic information of the human person itself is still in its infancy. Discussions about the (meta-)genetic information of the human microbiome are lacking even more behind. The talk will be concluded by a speculative but facts-based projection of current microbiome engineering approaches into the future.