Art

Pro-Human: A probiotic for social equality

This project forces us to question what happens if we cannot come together as a human family to overcome the atrocities of social inequality

Genefer Baxter
Jul 20 · 6 min read
The Red Team makes probiotic yogurt from scratch!

The failure to uphold human rights values became blatantly clear in 2020 and into 2021, especially in the United States.

Disparities in health, education, and economic status were revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of murders by police of Black people sparked protests, US asylum systems were dismantled, and access to women’s health care was limited.

The culmination being a socially unequal society where many people are affected by discrimination because of their background, skin color, gender, etc. How did we get here and could microorganisms lead us toward a new path?

A Red Team interview

Meet the Team

Keyanna, Anique, Jaiden, and Nabria, are 15 and 16-year-old students at Robeson High School in Philadelphia. Their interests range from photography to medicine, and science.

Robeson offered the Biodesign Challenge as an extracurricular opportunity. But despite increasing their workload, these four applied to the challenge because it was something new and interesting for them. In the end, they became the finalist team out of twelve students from Robeson to compete.

When we first began the project in December 2020, the consistent injustices occurring in the US were on everyone’s mind.

We discussed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We had conversations about the stark contrast between how police officers reacted to mostly white protestors storming the capitol building in the US vs mostly black and non-violent Black Lives Matter protestors, and we discussed how compounded factors resulted in huge disparities between minority communities and whites during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team quickly decided that they wanted their project to be impact-driven and that its goal would be to help make the world more equal for every human living here.

After investigating the nature of social inequality, we discovered that its foundation lies in prejudice and discrimination.

We really wanted this to change, and we wanted to end the cycle [of inequality].

Discrimination starts with prejudice, an opinion of someone based on their perceived group membership.

As we investigated, we found that this behavior is often the result of fear, specifically the fear of so-called “out-groups”. When we are confronted with a group outside of our own, we can feel insecure, our identity feels threatened, and we feel as though we do not belong.

Fear has a very physical response. Hormones like cortisol flood our bodies as we prepare for fight or flight, causing our heart rates to increase and to feel distressed. This feeling can have a huge impact, especially in the critical periods of early brain development when children are forming foundational neural networks. If we are not careful, over time, the brain can become conditioned to fear a certain stimulus, for example, people of different backgrounds (1).

We all have some prejudices, and the opinions and actions of the majority can significantly influence the thinking of an individual. But we wondered how we might harness what’s on the inside to help tackle this issue. Could there be a way to encourage and reinforce positive interactions with “out-groups” as children grow up and socialize, leading to a new generation of inclusive adults?

Product render

This was the question that we explored with our project, “Pro-Human”.

Pro-Human is a unique prebiotic and probiotic blend designed to increase social interaction and form bonds between children of different groups. There are three types of mixes: pancake, brownie, and muffin mix. The 5–9 yr mix decreases fear and anxiety for children just beginning school. The 10–13 yr mix is perfect for forming social bonds, and the 14+ yr mix delivers everything necessary for healthy brain development. Parents would serve the Pro-Human formula to their children on a daily basis for its psychoactive benefits, just like any other developmental supplement. Fear will no longer be a social limitation, and kids will gain immense confidence amongst peers.

We researched several psychoactive probiotics or so-called “psychobiotics”, which naturally occur in the gut and their effect on the brain. The probiotics we imagine to be inside of Pro-Human are strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, their growth greatly enhanced by a prebiotic, a fermentable fiber called GOS (2).

Once the probiotic/prebiotic mix is ingested and the live bacteria are delivered to the gut, they will synthesize neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, help the child to be less stressed and fearful, more relaxed, and generally happier around new people (3,4). By combining our psychobiotic with a healthy lifestyle and with parents reinforcing inclusive behavior, the child will begin forming healthy neural pathways which will strengthen over time.

Imagine a generation that didn’t have to live in constant fear, who grew up to respect and even celebrate the differences of others.

These children would not fall into tight cliques and would instead expand their social circles to include a more diverse set of people. Pro-Human could bring us one step closer to a world of social equality.

Of course, there is much more work to be done, and the field of gut-brain research is still in its infancy.

Currently, the probiotics on the market are not always effective; the gut microbiota is so unique to each human that the bacteria used and the frequency at which they should be ingested would need to be determined for each individual.

We shouldn’t forget either that the display of discrimination is a reflection of long-standing laws, policies, and mentalities that are overtly biased, and it will take more than a simple change in diet to solve these issues.

But although Pro-Human is a fictional design working within a tricky context, it serves its purpose as a social critique and critical investigation into the nature of human inequality.

When I asked what Anique, Jaiden, Keyanna, and Nabria wanted people to take away from their project, they answered that racism and prejudice are never justifiable, but creating this speculative design demonstrates that there is a possibility that tiny bacteria could help young minorities experience less discrimination than they have in their own lives, breaking the cycle of hate and fear.

This project by a group of teenagers from Philadelphia forces us to question what happens if we cannot come together as a human family to overcome the atrocities of social inequality. Will we be forced to take yet another supplement or will we be able to create social change through loving and respecting our fellow neighbors?

What are you doing to help break the cycle of prejudice and racism?

The Red Team’s final presentation
  1. McLaughlin, Katie A et al. “Maltreatment Exposure, Brain Structure, and Fear Conditioning in Children and Adolescents.Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 41,8 (2016): 1956–64. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.365
  2. Davani-Davari, Dorna et al. “Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications.Foods (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 8,3 92. 9 Mar. 2019, doi:10.3390/foods8030092
  3. Strandwitz, Philip. “Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota.” Brain research vol. 1693,Pt B (2018): 128–133. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2018.03.015
  4. Davidson, Jordan. “Nature’s Bounty: The Psychobiotic Revolution.Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 Mar. 2014

Bioeconomy.XYZ

Innovation for the Bioeconomy

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Genefer Baxter

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Curator of the Virtual Arts, designing immersive experiences that facilitate creativity. Co-Founder of @imrsvarts and editor of the @arttheorie blog!

Bioeconomy.XYZ

The Medium publication for biotechnology and everyone involved in the revolution. The best brought to you by the brightest.