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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

"Who owns your poop?": insights regarding the intersection of human microbiome research and the ELSI aspects of biobanking and related studies

Alice K Hawkins1 and Kieran C O'Doherty2*

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z2, Canada

2 Department of Psychology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, N1G 2W1, Canada

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BMC Medical Genomics 2011, 4:72  doi:10.1186/1755-8794-4-72

Published: 7 October 2011



While the social, ethical, and legal implications of biobanking and large scale data sharing are already complicated enough, they may be further compounded by research on the human microbiome.


The human microbiome is the entire complement of microorganisms that exists in and on every human body. Currently most biobanks focus primarily on human tissues and/or associated data (e.g. health records). Accordingly, most discussions in the social sciences and humanities on these issues are focused (appropriately so) on the implications of biobanks and sharing data derived from human tissues. However, rapid advances in human microbiome research involve collecting large amounts of data on microorganisms that exist in symbiotic relationships with the human body. Currently it is not clear whether these microorganisms should be considered part of or separate from the human body. Arguments can be made for both, but ultimately it seems that the dichotomy of human versus non-human and self versus non-self inevitably breaks down in this context. This situation has the potential to add further complications to debates on biobanking.


In this paper, we revisit some of the core problem areas of privacy, consent, ownership, return of results, governance, and benefit sharing, and consider how they might be impacted upon by human microbiome research. Some of the issues discussed also have relevance to other forms of microbial research. Discussion of these themes is guided by conceptual analysis of microbiome research and interviews with leading Canadian scientists in the field.

human microbiome; health research; consent; privacy; ownership; return of results; policy; biobanks; ELSI; research ethics