The Future of Genetically Engineered Probiotics, Part 1: The Promise
Why consumer biotechnology and engineered probiotics are such powerful ideas
Bioengineering holds the promise to enhance the human experience in countless ways. In the last 10 years, we have been able to make unprecedented advances in applying bioengineering to our daily lives, thanks to better and better tools for inexpensive DNA sequencing, high-quality and low-cost DNA synthesis, and incredibly precise gene editing.
Using these tools, we were able to launch genetically engineered probiotics to the world. And moving forward, our team is always thinking about the world of possibilities we can make real thanks to bioengineering technology. What problems can we potentially solve? How can we best use genetic engineering to create future products? And what impact will it have on our lives?
We explore these questions in this two-part blog post.
- In Part 1, we discuss what makes genetically engineered probiotics so powerful.
- In Part 2, we look at the problems they could potentially solve.
Part 1: The Promise of Genetically Engineered Probiotics
What about genetically engineered probiotics is so exciting? As an enabling technology, there are a few key things that set them apart.
Strength and Functionality: The Power of Enzymes
Genetic engineering is so compelling because it unlocks the power of enzymes. Enzymes are proteins, but they are more than just the macros in your diet. These proteins are functional. They perform actions at the molecular level. And they are some of the most powerful molecules on the planet, responsible for facilitating many of the most important functions for all life to happen.
Enzymatic actions include breaking things down, building things up, transforming certain molecules into other ones, and doing it all quickly and efficiently – very quickly and efficiently. Enzymes can make biochemical reactions happen thousands of times faster than they would happen on their own, which is particularly important if your body is trying to get rid of something toxic or to build something important for healthy function.
Genetically engineered probiotics unlock the power of enzymes for everyday use.
By changing a probiotic bacteria’s DNA, we can program it to produce whatever enzyme we choose. This gives it a novel function that’s powerful, unique, and above all useful.
We can augment its DNA even further. Not only does our probiotic now produce our chosen enzyme, but it produces a lot of it, all the time. This ensures it’s highly functional when and where it’s needed.
All of this is totally different from un-engineered probiotics.
Un-engineered probiotics are found in the wild (or more often, as incidental byproducts of the dairy industry), isolated, and then sold unchanged. If we tried to find the equivalent of a well-engineered probiotic in the wild, it would be difficult. It also likely wouldn’t perform its function well enough or consistently enough to make a difference and potentially wouldn’t be safe to consume.
Safety: Engineering Bacteria, Not Your Cells
Another key benefit of genetically engineered probiotics is safety.
By choosing to build on the safe and well-understood platform of probiotics, we ensure a certain base level of safety from the outset. Then we make sure whatever is being engineered into the probiotic is safe as well.
We are building on technology that has been understood and deemed safe for decades. And in contrast to human genome engineering, the DNA that’s being changed is that of a microbe – not a human cell.
This has a slew of safety benefits over engineering human cells, not the least of which is that it’s temporary. Engineered probiotics can be added to your body temporarily, for 18-24 hours before you pass them out. That’s enough to give you a quick stint of powerful functionality, but without risking long-term changes to your microbiome.*
Adaptability: A Universe of Genes
In contrast to un-engineered probiotics or even other forms of genetic engineering, the adaptability of genetically engineered probiotics is astounding.
We have a universe of genes to work with, and each gene represents a new biological function that we can harness. If you desire a specific function/enzyme, it’s just a matter of finding the gene for it – in nature and in the scientific literature – and programming it into our probiotic.
But it’s not just about genes. Choosing the probiotic chassis we’re engineering creates a world of possibilities itself. Each “base strain” (the un-engineered strain we start with) already comes preloaded with a set of traits that it developed over billions of years of evolution. These traits are powerful and useful: environmental resilience, long-term stability, room-temperature shelf life, safety, and more.
Each probiotic species has a different set. By engineering a particular base to have a particular function, we get a highly tuned ingredient more powerful and specific to our needs than any un-engineered probiotic we could ever find.
But what can they actually do for us?
How might genetically engineered probiotics change our lives for the better?
Keep reading to find out. Continue to Part 2…