How modified microbes could help us live healthier lives

Category Technology

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Modified microbes could be used as potential treatments to aid gut health and reduce inflammation in a variety of diseases. Brad Ringeisen and Justin Sonnenburg are both exploring ways to use modified microbes to engineer a healthier microbiome for humans. This could potentially lead to treatments that would work the same way for people with different microbiomes.

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Microbes have been on my mind this week. These tiny organisms are everywhere, and the ones that reside in our bodies appear to be incredibly important for our health. Microbes are ancient—they were evolving on the planet for millions of years before humans came along. So it’s no surprise that they’ve developed intricate relationships with other living systems. They feed on chemicals in their environments to produce other chemicals—some of which are more beneficial to nearby organisms than others.

Methane emitted by cows is 25% of the total methane levels found in the US

Modified microbes seem to help treat cancer in mice, and human trials are on the way, as I reported earlier this year. (For a more general update on gene editing, you can read about how the editing tool CRISPR is already changing people’s lives, and how some believe we’ll eventually be using the technology to treat the majority of people.) .

Take the work being done by Brad Ringeisen, executive director of the Innovative Genomics Institute in Berkeley, California, and his colleagues. The team recently received a huge amount of funding to explore new ways to engineer microbes for the well-being of people and the planet—particularly people living in low- and middle-income countries.

Microbes exist in extreme environments, such as hydrothermal vents, and the deepest ocean beds.

The likely first recipients of such treatments will be cows. The way we farm these animals has a tremendous impact on the environment, for several reasons. (Read more from Tech Review about what it would take to clean up farming here and here.) But one significant element is the methane they emit, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Ringeisen thinks that modifying existing microbes should be less disruptive than introducing entirely new ones. He likens the approach to that of a conductor fine-tuning the sound of an orchestra. "[It would be like] bringing up the violin and lowering the bass drum, but to tune the microbiome," he says.

Microbes are not just beneficial, but also act as enemies for humans like bacteria causing diseases.

We still don’t know exactly what that means, or what a healthy microbiome should look like. But ideally, we want to avoid having bugs that make chemicals that cause harmful inflammation or damage the gut lining, for example. And we might want to encourage the growth of microbes that make chemicals that aid gut health—like butyrate, which is made when some microbes ferment fiber and seems to strengthen the intestine’s natural barrier.

Microbes have a diverse range of functions like converting nitrogen, breaking down organic matter and forming essential compounds.

As long as the modified microbes aren’t making anything harmful, it should be relatively straightforward to approve these treatments, says Ringeisen. "Those are experiments that are going to be relatively easy to do," he says.

Justin Sonnenburg, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University in California, is also looking at ways to reengineer the microbes in our guts to improve our health. One important target is inflammation—a process that has been linked to all sorts of diseases, ranging from arthritis to cardiovascular disease.

In 2019 a study showed that modified microbes in pigs were able to reduce the amount of climate-changing methane released.

One of the challenges will be to develop a treatment that works the same way in different people, who will have different microbiomes. But there may be some ways around this. In a study a few years ago, Sonnenburg and his colleagues delivered a modified microbe into the guts of mice. This micropredator chased down and destroyed certain harmful microbes by feeding on them—independent of the mice’s underlying microbiomes.

Current trials are looking at using modified microbes to treat illnesses in humans.

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