Futures salon: Me, myself, and my microbiome

Sensemaking / Futures salon: Me, myself, and my microbiome

Microbiome enthusiasts are swabbing subways and cataloguing canals for insights into the millions of bacteria that live in our bodies. Alisha Bhagat brought them together at a Futures Salon in Brooklyn.

By Alisha Bhagat / 17 Dec 2015

In November a group of artists, entrepreneurs and scientists gathered under mounted animal heads at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. They came together to discuss the future of the ‘microbiome’, the collection of bacteria that inhabits living organisms, including humans. The millions of bacteria that make up the microbiome live inside our bodies and can impact everything from our immune system to our mental health. At this Futures Salon, hosted by Forum for the Future, participants explored many angles of the microbiome and discussed how advances in our understanding of it could shape the future.

Chris Mason, a geneticist and professor at Weil Cornell Medical College, spoke about his work swabbing the New York City subways for bacteria. Chris and his team engaged in an 18-month project to sample the bacteria living throughout the subway system in order to create a map of urban microbiology. He explained that people are unlikely to catch anything from touching the train cars or turnstiles. However, in the future, this data might be harnessed to broadcast bacterial alerts about certain train stations, giving consumers the ability to reroute or wash their hands if travelling through.

Elizabeth Henaff, a researcher working on the Extreme Microbiome spoke about the bacterial life of the extremely polluted Gowanus Canal. The Gowanus is located next door to the US office and gives off a pungent odour in the summer. Elizabeth assured us that this is simply a sign of microbes working hard. She recently won a design competition to launch the BK Bioreactor, an infrastructure project containing a smart dock that is designed to catalogue the microbiome of the canal before it is dredged. The bizarre ecosystem (home to a recently discovered three-eyed fish) may contain super-resilient and highly adapted bacteria.

Christina Agapakis, the Creative Director at Ginkgo Bioworks, spoke about the commercial applications of bacteria. Her company is working on using cultured ingredients for fashion, fragrance and food. Most recently, Gingko has been working on a rose fragrance created through fermentation. If successful, the fragrance would allow for a cheaper, and less environmentally intensive fragrance for use in foods and scents. In the future microbes may be more personalized. Christina mentioned that a ’deodorant’ that adapted to your body’s blend of microbes was not too far in the future. Rather than masking your scent, such a deodorant would encourage the growth of fragrant bacteria that would emit pleasing scents as you sweat.

But what if the terrible sweat smell is a sign of poor bacterial health? Larry Weiss from AOBiome spoke about his product, Mother Dirt, a probiotic spray for your skin that eliminates the need to shower with soap and other hygiene products. He explained that soap rids the body of healthy bacteria that keeps odours in check. By spraying the body with good bacteria, the correct balance can be maintained and there will be no need to use soaps, lotions, face creams, or other products. His products are truly disruptive as they encourage people to change behaviour around how they perceive hygiene and cleanliness.

After we heard from the speakers, participants engaged in a series of progressive roundtables in order to facilitate a collective conversation. Through the three rounds, we asked the following questions:

  • What did you find interesting or intriguing from the presentations?
  • How will advances in the microbiome change the way we live 10 years from now?
  • How will advances in the microbiome be relevant to your organization or industry?

In the conversations that followed, attendees discussed the myriad ways in which the microbiome will change the way we look at consumer products, medical care, and our own health. For example, the market for anti-bacterial products may diminish as the general public understands the benefits of a healthy microbiome. As a response there might be pro-biotic products of behaviours that people may adopt in order to facilitate the growth of healthy bacteria. This could include a pro-biotic diet, probiotic personal care products, and encouraging pet ownership in cities.

Innovations may become quite extreme and we could see developments such as faecal banking (saving your own faecal matter for bacterial recovery during periods of ill health), more frequent faecal transplants, and probiotic jeans and underwear.

We hope that the Futures Salons will continue to be a place where we can explore cutting edge futures topics with our network. Stay tuned for upcoming Salons in New York and around the US.

Alisha Bhagat is a Sustainability Advisor in the Futures team at Forum for the Future’s New York office.

Image: Chiot's Run / Flickr

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