The New New

The Next Big Thing in Health Is Your Exposome

From sewer sludge to mosquito repellant, one scientist is exploring how daily exposures determine our health

Veronique Greenwood
Elemental
Published in
6 min readNov 5, 2018

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Illustration: Kevin VQ Dam

OOur health is a combination of genetics and environment. Maybe someone’s genes make them vulnerable to high blood pressure, for example, but by watching what they eat — in effect, controlling their body’s environment — they can keep their numbers within normal levels.

Right now, we know a lot about the genetics side of this combination, as an explosion of research has yielded incredible detail about people’s genetic profiles. We also have insight into how our internal bacterial environments — the microbiome — impact our health. But the environmental piece of the puzzle is still fuzzy. We don’t measure all the chemicals we encounter each day, from the microscopic fungi on a walk to the car exhaust on a highway.

That is, most people don’t.

Michael Snyder, a Stanford biologist and pioneer in genomics, does. For the past several years, Snyder has been wearing a device he invented that measures the environment around him. It’s part of his quest to learn how the environment impacts our health by studying what he calls people’s “exposomes,” or the various air particles, pollutants, viruses, and more that we come into contact with each day.

“I think the way we do medicine now is very primitive, compared to what it could be.”

In a recent paper in the journal Cell, Snyder and his colleagues describe what they’ve learned from affixing 15 people with these air-monitoring devices for up to 890 days. Each device is about the size of a big matchbox, and contains filters that trap particulates, chemicals, and microbes from the air around it. Medium talked to Snyder about the study, the exposome, and his own self-monitoring discoveries.

This is not your first foray into detailed self-monitoring. A few years ago you were monitoring your own blood over the course of 14 months, and you detected the onset of your own diabetes

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