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Why Scientists Are Building A ‘Poop Vault’ In Svalbard, And Why It’s Causing Controversy

Posted on 9 December 2021

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Just picture it: you are living in the year 2200. The world’s entire population lives in industrial societies, and subsists exclusively on processed food and energy drinks. Obesity is through the roof, and nearly everyone has type II diabetes. Humans need hover chairs to move around like in Wall-E. Soon healthcare services will collapse and humanity will go extinct as we all fall into a diabetic coma. However, there may be a way you can save the world: you must venture to the Svalbard archipelago. There, in the mountains, you will find a vault containing the one thing that might be able to save humanity: the ancestral faeces samples.

After the apocalypse: The Arctic vault that could keep mankind alive
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Yes, that’s right. By 2028, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway – a collection of seeds from all over the world to preserve them in case of extinction – may be joined by the Microbiota Vault. The aim is to house and preserve the diverse gut microbiomes (the microorganisms within the gut) of the world’s human population, which could prove valuable for future generations when it comes to treating disease.

Why Do We Need A Vault?

Scientists are worried that we might be at risk of losing certain beneficial species of gut bacteria to industrialisation. Aspects of our environment, primarily diet and use of antibiotics, can grow or shrink the populations of specific bacterial species within our guts. This could lead to the complete extinction of certain types of bacteria in industrialised societies. That’s concerning, because gut bacteria interact with so many aspects of our health that they have immense potential to treat disease if they can be harnessed therapeutically. For example, maybe there are some microbes that can help prevent obesity and diabetes, but they are disappearing. By making an effort to preserve them now, we retain the option of restoring them to future generations.

For the reasons already set out, samples from remote and traditional communities are particularly valuable. Populations with less exposure to industrialisation have more diverse gut microbiomes, with compositions that are closer to what they were before humans started to drastically reshape their environments.

Why The Controversy?

Why would an initiative to preserve the human microbiome be controversial? The first reason relates to the indigenous communities from which the samples will primarily be collected, who were first driven out of their lands by colonial powers and continue to be marginalised to this day. It’s not difficult to see why the idea of ‘prospecting’ these communities for their gut microbes, mostly for the benefit of people living in industrialised societies, might leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Of course, scientists are not going to be stealing or tricking people into handing over their microbiomes – donors would need to give informed consent. The time is long gone when taking biological samples without consent or knowledge (such as in the famous case of Henrietta Lacks) was commonplace. However, there are more recent examples in which the informed consent given by indigenous communities was perhaps not as informed as it could have been. In 2003 for example, members of the Havasupai tribe learned that their blood samples, which they had given to researchers from Arizona State University for use in diabetes research, had also been used in unrelated studies which they would not have consented to had they been asked.

Official Havasupai Tribe Website
After giving blood samples for research into the genetic underpinnings of diabetes, a disease to which they are predisposed, the Havasupai learned that researchers were using their DNA to look for other genetic markers.

The second problem is that handling of microbiota samples remains an ethical and legal grey area: how are the samples collected, who owns the samples, and who gets access to the genetic data? What if companies try to commercialise the data? How can we ensure that the rights of the donors are protected in the future? Scientists disagree.

The proposal for the Microbiota Vault is that communities that participate in sample collection can keep a copy of their microbiota locally for their experts to conduct research on, but also have the option of donating another copy to the Vault. The Microbiota Vault is not the only project seeking to collect microbiota samples, and not all projects share the same view on the handling and accessibility of the samples. The Native BioData Consortium (NBDC) for example, run by scientists and researchers who are members of Indigenous communities in the US and Mexico, is opposed to public sharing of this data in any capacity.

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