Social and population health science approaches to understand the human microbiome


The microbiome is now considered our ‘second genome’ with potentially comparable importance to the genome in determining human health. There is, however, a relatively limited understanding of the broader environmental factors, particularly social conditions, that shape variation in human microbial communities. Fulfilling the promise of microbiome research — particularly the microbiome’s potential for modification — will require collaboration between biologists and social and population scientists. For life scientists, the plasticity and adaptiveness of the microbiome calls for an agenda to understand the sensitivity of the microbiome to broader social environments already known to be powerful predictors of morbidity and mortality. For social and population scientists, attention to the microbiome may help answer nagging questions about the underlying biological mechanisms that link social conditions to health. We outline key substantive and methodological advances that can be made if collaborations between social and population health scientists and life scientists are strategically pursued.

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Fig. 1: Proposed relationships between social conditions, the gut microbiome, and morbidity and mortality.


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The authors thank members of the Rey Laboratory for their insights and support. This work was supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture (2016-67017-24416, FER), the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health (NIH) (AG041868, PH), the Center for the Demography of Health and Aging (AG017266, PH), and the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) (UL1TR000427, ZZT). Additional support was provided by the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

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P.H., J.B.D. and A.P. contributed to the conceptualization and writing of the manuscript. F.R. contributed to the conceptualization of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Pamela Herd.

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Herd, P., Palloni, A., Rey, F. et al. Social and population health science approaches to understand the human microbiome. Nat Hum Behav 2, 808–815 (2018).

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