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LEAD SUPERVISOR: Dr Josh Firth, Department of Biology

Co-supervisor: Dr Sarah Knowles, Department of Biology

Commercial partner: Reckitt UK, Slough

Social transmission of disease-causing microbes has long been recognised, and person-to-person social contact has recently attracted much negative societal attention for its role in spreading disadvantageous microbes during the COVID19 pandemic. Nevertheless, humans also rely on many other microbes, particularly microbiota, that make up their ‘microbiome’ which is now known to be linked to almost all aspects of human health. While initial research focussed heavily on how an individual may shape their own microbiome (e.g. through their diet and their interaction with their environment), the role of social transmission of healthy microbiota between individuals is now becoming increasingly recognised. Specifically, contemporary studies suggest that any given individual’s microbiome is also influenced by the microbiome of individuals they are in social contact with. For instance, a well-known example of the importance of social transmission of healthy microbiota is vaginal birth, which has long been known to shape the infant microbiome and hold various benefits over C-section birth in this context. Yet, while all infants begin to build up their microbiome from early life, recent findings and emerging evidence are increasingly pointing towards social transmission of microbiota continuing long after birth, and throughout individuals’ entire lives. Indeed, social contact appears to not only be a primary determinant of which strains of microbiota an infant gains from their mother, but also a determinant of which strains of microbiota individuals’ gain from social contacts across a broad range of contexts/interaction partners over their different life-stages, as beneficial microbes socially transmit from one host to another over time.

Therefore, an important, but relatively neglected, trade-off exists when considering the costs and benefits of social contact for spreading contagious diseases while simultaneously being responsible for transmission of healthy microbiota. This paradox is emphasised even more when considering that some of the healthy microbiota gained through social contact may also be helpful in improving immunity to the diseases also spread by social contact.

This project will address the paradox of sociality for spreading both disadvantageous microbes as well as healthy microbiota. The project aims to generate new insights into how social transmission can be exploited to benefit human health, particularly in the context of promoting individuals’ exposure to microbiota responsible for providing immunity and protection against socially-transmitted diseases. The project will achieve this through drawing on academic expertise in conceptually understanding the causes and consequences of social transmission, and combine this with industry-based approaches to recognising real-world impact for human health and hygiene across broad range of contexts. Using varied approaches, combining results from specific experiments with findings from real-world big data analysis, new and important contributions will be made towards harnessing the social transmission of microbiota to improve health and immunity.

Apply using course: DPhil in Biology


January 2023 update:

Applications for this iCASE project (for October 2023 entry) are no longer accepted.

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