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A Special Interview with Inuit Scientist- Dr. Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann

Published on: 28 Sep 2022 Viewed: 444

The Editorial Office of Microbiome Research Reports (MRR) was glad to have a special interview on 21 September with the journal author Dr. Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann about the article "Better understanding of food and human microbiomes through collaborative research on Inuit fermented foods" which was published in MRR on Jan 24, 2022.

This preliminary research into Inuit animal-sourced fermented foods expands current knowledge about the microorganisms needed to make them, and points to a potential to understand how these and other fermented foods affect the human gut microbiome. Dr. Hauptmann and her colleagues provided recommendations for microbiological research on Inuit fermented foods that center Inuit knowledge within the specific geographic, social, and cultural contexts in which these foods are made.

The article ranks as one of the most popular articles in MRR. Therefore, it is delightful to have the opportunity to invite the author of this article to share research insights through the interview.

The followings are the questions from readers, MRR Editors, and Dr. Hauptmann’s answers:

1. How to better understand the Inuit fermented foods within the specific geographic, social, and cultural background?

The answer to this question can go several ways. We can discuss what is the ethical way and what is the scientific way. In the end, our argument is that these are connected. By doing ethical and equitable research in close partnership with Inuit, we can get a better, also scientific, understanding of the diverse roles that microorganisms play in fermentation and in the human gastrointestinal tract. This understanding might be missed if the research is focused singularly on the scientific results and essentially with the goal of publishing rather than understanding the Inuit perspective. How so? If scientific publications are the end goal, it is enough to understand things within the current microbiological paradigm. However, if the goal is to understand the importance of Inuit fermented foods, we might be forced to look outside current paradigms to understand our results. Like when we discover high fractions of Clostridia in fermented foods that have previously been associated with botulism, but are told at the same time that these foods are healthy and important. In such cases, we need to look beyond what we might see as the obvious conclusion, and in that, we have an opportunity to add nuances to our understanding of the role of clostridia in fermented foods and the human gut microbiome.

2. Would you like to share your views on the role that Inuit fermentation has played and is likely to play in the future?

When outsiders think about the Arctic, it is often considered as a harsh place, barren and cold. But Inuit describe the vast sea ice as some might describe a garden. It is full of life and food. The Arctic is a source of diverse and abundant diets if one knows how to tap into the abundance and diversity, and an important aspect of that is food preservation and of course fermentation. For millennia we have used meat caches to store food when food was abundant, and save it for times when it was not. When you look at the diversity of foods that have been fermented in Greenland over the last 300 years, it is obvious that fermentation has had a central role in our diet. As for the future, I hope that future generations of Inuit will keep exploring how we can respect our surroundings by eating local and preserving foods as well as culture.

3. Is there any important primary rule in Inuit fermentation practice?

Yes! The sun must not see the food. This is a primary rule in many fermentation practices in Greenland, although there are some ferments, including iginneq – fermented seal blubber – which do require some help from the sun.

4. How to conduct research to understand how Inuit fermentation processes affect the microbial communities of the final products?

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has described this the best. They recently published guidelines regarding collaborating with Inuit in Circumpolar Inuit Protocols for Equitable and Ethical Engagement (Inuit Circumpolar Council. 2022. Circumpolar Inuit Protocols for Equitable and Ethical Engagement). In the foreword written by former ICC International Chair, Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough, it reads, “This document should be accepted and seen by others as an invitation to consult and cooperate with Inuit by illustrating for researchers, decision-makers and others what is needed to genuinely be responsive to the urgent call for recognizing the interrelated, interdependent and indivisible rights of Inuit. The elements embraced in this publication can be employed by others in any facet of engagement with Inuit and the diverse subject matter that affects our day-to-day lives. We especially invite scientists, researchers, funders, and decision-makers to digest and ultimately implement these protocols with Inuit. Finally, we insist in a good way that overall results will produce a higher standard and quality of research beneficial for Inuit and all others.”

5. What was the defining moment that led you to your field?

I am Inuk myself. While I was doing my Ph.D. in the metagenomics of snow and ice environments, the research area of the human gut microbiome was expanding aggressively. And in observing this field of research from the sidelines I kept wondering about the insistent focus on plant-based diets in this field of research. I wondered why no one seemed to acknowledge that some peoples, and in particular Arctic Indigenous peoples, have lived healthily off animal-source foods for millennia. It was clear to me that there is a large gap in our understanding of how healthy animal-source foods affect the microbiome. And not just animal-source foods, but foods that are not industrially produced, foods that come straight out of our environment, including microbes from our environment. This has been my research focus for the past six years; below are two links to the previous papers1,2.

The defining moment that led me to this particular publication was a warm summer day in the very north of Greenland, Qaanaaq, in June 2018. I was on my way to do research on kiviaq, fermented seabirds. On my way to the northernmost permanently populated place on Earth, Siorapaluk, I was interviewed by our local Greenlandic radio station. And in introducing me before the interview, the radio hosts mention that I am a researcher on my way to research kiviaq. At this moment, a lady in Siorapaluk gets very angry with me, as she thinks that a stranger is coming to investigate their food culture, perhaps to tell the world how extreme, exotic or even dangerous they are. But actually, this is not the focus of my research; I told her that I want to learn from the expertise of fermenters in Greenland the nuances of our food culture, microbial and human. When she heard this, she and her family welcomed our research team to Siorapaluk.

6. Do you have any suggestions on the direction of further study in this field?

I hope to see research that is based on Inuit desires. For example, what are communities interested in knowing about their foods? Together with the paper's senior author Professor Maria Marco and our colleagues from UC Davis and Ilisimatusarfik, we are currently working on an NSF planning grant to explore what kind of research is interesting and valuable to fermenters in Kalaallit Nunaat - Greenland.

1. Hauptmann, A. L. et al. Microbiota in foods from Inuit traditional hunting. PLoS One 15, (2020).
2. Hauptmann, A. L. et al. The microbial composition of dried fish prepared according to Greenlandic Inuit traditions and industrial counterparts. Food Microbiol. 85, (2020).

Author's introduction: 

Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann, Ph.D.

Project leader of the UMAMI project: the Unusual Microbiomes and Metabolites of Inuit foods, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, anchored at the University of California Davis and the University of Greenland - Ilisimatusarfik.
Project leader of The Greenland Diet Revolution, a research project on microbes on traditional Greenlandic food for improved public health as well as the Inuit gut microbiome, greenland diet revolution Researching, blogging and networking in the cross field between science, food culture and indigenous perspectives.
Research Interests: Microbiology and metagenomics, Inuit fermented foods, food sovereignty and the future of indigenous youth.

Respectfully Submitted by the Editorial Office
Microbiome Research Reports

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