If a researcher takes a swab of your nose and finds a new species of bacteria, the discovery of which leads to the development of a new drug, do you deserve a cut of those profits, asks Carl Zimmer in The New York Times. More and more, bioethicists are asking questions about people's relationships with their microbiomes, Zimmer says. Mount Sinai School of Medicine bioethicist Rosamond Rhodes tells Zimmer that information on an individual's microbiome deserves the same protection of privacy as genetic information.
But granting a person's microbiome the same protection as their genetic information could prove tricky. "Microbes defy a simple notion of individuality. They are essential to our biology, and they travel with us from birth to death. Yet they also flow between us, and can be found in water, food and soil," Zimmer says. For right now, the most important thing, researchers say, is to be honest with participants involved in microbiome studies to make sure they have a realistic understanding about any research they're taking part in. However, Zimmer adds, if new drugs start emerging from the insights provided by these studies, it may be time to consider how the study participants can share in the benefits.