The public commonly associates microorganisms with pathogens. This suspicion of microorganisms is understandable, as historically microorganisms have killed more humans than any other agent while remaining largely unknown until the late seventeenth century with the works of van Leeuwenhoek and Kircher. Despite our improved understanding regarding microorganisms, the general public are apt to think of diseases rather than of the majority of harmless or beneficial species that inhabit our bodies and the built and natural environment. As long as microbiome research was confined to labs, the public’s exposure to microbiology was limited. The recent launch of global microbiome surveys, such as the Earth Microbiome Project and MetaSUB (Metagenomics and Metadesign of Subways and Urban Biomes) project, has raised ethical, financial, feasibility, and sustainability concerns as to the public’s level of understanding and potential reaction to the findings, which, done improperly, risk negative implications for ongoing and future investigations, but done correctly, can facilitate a new vision of “smart cities.” To facilitate improved future research, we describe here the major concerns that our discussions with ethics committees, community leaders, and government officials have raised, and we expound on how to address them. We further discuss ethical considerations of microbiome surveys and provide practical recommendations for public engagement.
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