This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Kicking off this series is Valerie Daude, a recent MA graduate in Social Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE). She is interested in how gut bacteria play critical roles in maintaining our human health in many aspects, and aims to understand how biological organisms interact with their human host.

This research has led her to design the Microbial Self project, a series of interactive facial prosthetics that measure and visualize the diversity of microbial species inside our guts, hence give insides on our bodily and mental health condition.

According to the designer, "the masks act as body extensions that enable a dialogue between us and the microorganisms inside of us. Displaying your 'inside' in the middle of your face, hiding your identity and sharing it with your microorganisms."

Welcome to the Next Generation: Get to know Valerie Daude.

Where does your fascination for microbial design come from?

As a woman of 1,92m, standard organizations like ISO or DIN consider my size non-standard. As a result, the world that has been built does not fit my body size and makes me experience the negative aspects of industry standards every day.

This motivated me to research ergonomic theory, the process of normalization and standardization of the human body, and especially historic concepts of the normal or average.

I found that the first physical unit of measurement was the human body itself. The resulting anthropic units went beyond focusing on the body, and were used to define the dimensions of the world.

How did this insight inform your work?

While trying to define alternative units to measure the human body, I learned that our physical and mental health is highly influenced by trillions of microorganisms that live within, on and around us. 

The differences between bodies on a microscopic level have a much bigger impact on humans’ overall wellbeing, more than differences in size and dimension. This insight made me change my focus from defining a body through its anthropometric measurements to interpreting the body in a much smaller and much more diverse unit — I started to investigate the microorganisms inside the body. 

Tell us a bit more about these microorganisms

Only 43% of each human body's total cell amount is human. The remaining 57% are microorganisms, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Their population and genetic material are referred to as the human microbiome.

Bacteria far outnumber other microbes, and most species are found in the gut. Their diversity is essential for many aspects of our physical and mental well being. Between 400 and up to 1000 different bacteria species live in a healthy gut. The more different species you have, the better it is for your body.

They help us to digest certain food, synthesize vitamins, balance our immune system, and through the gut-brain axis, they influence our cognitive functions, mood, and even our behavior.

Each human body has its own unique set of microbes that constantly change over a lifetime. Diet, exercise, hygiene, medication and many other influences from our environment determine the composition of our microbes.

We constantly influence our microbial bodies without being aware of the impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

And your project aims to visualize this?

Yes, I am working on methods to measure, visualize and display the diversity of our gut bacteria. Therefore I developed the concept of Microbial Masks, which have an integrated breath test that analyzes the diversity of gut bacteria through chemicals in your breath.

With every breath, the mask translates the results into a readable color code that is displayed on the mask.

Who are the masks for?

First and foremost, it's an ongoing design research project. At this stage, the project aims to explore through speculation how relationships between humans, as well as between humans and microbes, will be affected through advances in microbiome research.

To date, the relationship between humans and microorganisms has largely been biased. Microorganisms, especially bacteria, are primarily associated with diseases, contamination, and death.

Changes in present-day society such as diets with increased sugar, salt, and saturated fat, insufficient exercise, overuse of antibiotics, disinfectants, and pesticides cause a microbial imbalance in our environments and our bodies.

This contributes to an increase in obesity, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, depression, and mental health concerns. We need a paradigm shift, from thinking about microbes as enemies that have to be eliminated and destroyed, to thinking about achieving a healthy microbiotic environment within and around us. 

Where could you see the masks first introduced?

In a later stage of the project, the breath test technology could be implemented into wearable healthcare devices.

Nowadays, patients have little power in most healthcare systems and are depending on the decisions of healthcare professionals. Through self-tracking devices, individuals can get involved in the management of their microbial balance within the gut, and by extension, their overall health.

Would you wear this yourself?

I would wear and present the Microbial Masks on public events, symposiums, or exhibitions and invite others to test them. The main purpose of them is to open up conversations about the future application of microbiome research, data security, and to challenge the relationship between humans and microorganisms.

This phase of the project is not about introducing the design or technology to the market. Rather, the purpose is to gather people around these speculative objects as a way of maintaining interdisciplinary debate and creating new perspectives on scientific research.

The Microbial Masks are physical, haptic and form interactive conversation pieces that challenge the senses and imagination, triggering the exchange of insights between different professions, from artists to scientists, to learn from each other’s perspectives.

On a scale from 1-10, how speculative is the project?

I see this project as a near-future scenario in which healthcare becomes much more personal, political and expressive. In general, I would rate it a 7.

There are some parts, like the breath test, which is still a concept. But there are already diagnostic tools, like the hydrogen breath test, that can measure bacterial growth in your digestive tract through chemicals in your breath.

Also, the application of this technology in a mask can not be ruled out. In China, it is already very common to wear masks in public for health reasons. Although it is much more likely that many would prefer to keep the information gathered by the Microbial Mask private. 

Apart from that, the potential of microbiome research in healthcare is real. More and more at-home gut bacteria testing kits appear on the market. They all claim to help improve health.

Although the tests are questionable, in terms of their reliability, the market is growing rapidly. I took this extremely impersonal and quite slow procedure and transformed it into a more sensual and faster method: a breath test.

The microbiome holds the ability to influence our body, identity, health. Masks aside, one may argue that designing your microbiome is a form of biohacking, would you agree? Why?

Yes, definitely. Biohacking doesn't have to be related to micro-dosing, LSD or implanting chips. It's also about the controlled enhancement of your physical and cognitive performance, through the use of technology and biology.

There is constant interaction between microorganisms and hosts, autonomous processes of unconscious exchange that can enhance or decrease the host's performance. Humans are influencing their gut microbiome through everything they eat, inhale, absorb, digest and synthesize. Presumed that this influence may be conscious, guided, and goal-oriented, it can be interpreted as biohacking. Thereby the goal is to enhance the host’s overall health, cognitive function, and performance achieved through a balanced and diverse gut microbiome.

Why should we share this data?

Our body produces measurable data at every moment, and we could use this data to improve care and find new treatments for disease. Due to emerging molecular technologies, scientific knowledge and advances in human microbiome research are booming. This will inevitably bring striking changes in  understanding ourselves, normalcy, health, and illness, and consequently transform medical care, plus personal and public health.

The enormous amount of data we could generate by monitoring all those autonomous microorganism processes in our gut, with every single breath, holds exciting potential for researchers and doctors - on the condition that the collected data remains anonymous and is protected to prevent its misuse. This data could improve healthcare and find new treatments for disease.

Understanding how microorganisms interact with their human hosts could explain different aspects of many complex diseases. We can gain better insight into metabolic diseases, diabetes and Alzheimers, immunological and autoimmune diseases, or even behavioral changes, like depression and anxiety, or autism and ADHD in children.

What’s the dream scenario for this design? What’s the nightmare?

The nightmare would be if microbial data would be used to exclude, discriminate, or disadvantage people. It could be extremely problematic if insurance companies or employers want to have access to this kind of data. Furthermore, choice of friends and partners may be influenced, since body contact significantly influences the microbial communities on a human's skin.

The dream scenario is to use microbiome research to improve healthcare and to create a collective understanding of the importance of microbes for ourselves and our environment.

I designed the three Microbial Masks based on bodily systems which are highly influenced by our microbes. The digestive system, the respiratory system, and the immune system. In the future, wearables in healthcare may be defined as an extension of the body, technology that merges with your body like an external organ. I am not a big fan of the sleek industrial design of standard wearables in healthcare today. The aesthetic translations of my research are also visual proposals for a more expressive and sensual design of future wearable healthcare products.

We live in a microbial world, without being aware of it. We might need to conceptualize the human body as an ecosystem and the human being as a superorganism, rather than a single individual.

Catch Microbial Self as part of the Dutch Design Week at the DAE Graduation Show 2019. From 19 — 27 October at Melkfabriek, Eindhoven.

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