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Our Ongoing Commitment to Safe Genetic Engineering

Our mission goes beyond the lab

Here at ZBiotics we are proudly GMO. Our mission is to use the tools of genetic engineering not just for the sake of science, but to genuinely enhance your daily life with probiotics that have a targeted wellness benefit. Our focus? Safety first, always.

Our mission is also bigger than ZBiotics. We advocate for the safety and regulation of all genetically engineered microbes (GEMs). That means putting ourselves out there and connecting with diverse audiences capable of making a difference in the industry at large.

In our last post, Beyond the Buzzwords: Unpacking What Food Labels Really Mean, we described our commitment to transparency and scientific rigor as a basic tenet of responsible use of genetic engineering. As part of our commitment, we’d like to share a few recent opportunities that our company has had when it comes to advocating for GEM safety, transparency, and innovation.

We presented at the International Conference on Microbiome Engineering

Back in December 2023, our CEO, Zack Abbott, presented at the 6th International Conference on Microbiome Engineering, representing ZBiotics’ dedication to the intersection of science and safety. The message we wanted to share underscored a pivotal theme: the responsible engineering of genetically modified microbes meant for environmental release. By “environmental release,” we mean GEMs that are intentionally distributed outside the lab into the world at large – e.g., into the grocery store, the farm, the construction site, etc. Our goal was to highlight how we can collaborate with academia to develop tools, guidance, and regulation for these released GEMs going forward.

We advocated for a number of GEM safety initiatives, including:

  • Small and precise genetic mutations: By advocating for small and precise genetic modifications, we can support methods that reduce risk, ensuring each genetic alteration serves a clear, beneficial purpose without introducing unforeseen variables into ecosystems.
  • Gene modifications that are likely to have already occurred in nature: Moreover, we want to emphasize the importance of selecting gene modifications that echo those found in nature. This reinforces our stance on making changes that are not only necessary but also that have already naturally happened many times before.

These are just two examples, but they’re significant elements of the comprehensive approach to GEM safety for which we’re advocating. Applying these constraints may be more restrictive than the advances made in the broader bioengineering field, but we believe these additional guardrails are important for real world applications and environmental release – at least for now, until the technology improves such that we can better predict the wholistic impacts specific to modern genetic engineering techniques – which we will discuss in more detail below.

We participated in a study on safe genetic engineering through biocontainment strategies

In early February of this year, our team participated in a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded study held at Arizona State University. This project delved into the critical area of biocontainment for GEMs. Biocontainment strategies are innovative methods scientists use to ensure that an engineered bacteria only occupies a specific intended environment. It’s a cornerstone of responsible genetic engineering, crucial for both safety and environmental harmony.

Our dialogue with this research group centered on a key inquiry: what strengths and limitations currently exist within biocontainment practices and the regulatory frameworks that guide the management of GEMs in the United States? Here at ZBiotics, we take a stance of caution. We are very conservative about our engineering approach and make sure that our GEMs don’t break evolutionary boundaries, so that containment isn’t necessary.

What does that mean? Consider our Pre-Alcohol product, which uses Bacillus subtilis - a bacteria that naturally occurs in environments like soil and the human gut. When developing Pre-Alcohol, we carefully modified the bacteria’s genome in ways that almost assuredly have already happened in nature. By doing so, we can be sure that the world has already been exposed to these changes in the past without incident. This gives us confidence that we’re not creating something with significant unknown risks. There are many tactics to confer GEM safety, and this is just one of those approaches.

We pushed for innovation and safety at an interdisciplinary symposium

Fresh off the heels of that study, we were invited to attend a symposium hosted by the Caltech Center for Science, Society, and Public Policy (CSSPP), the Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute, and Schmidt Sciences. The symposium attendees discussed how we can innovate and regulate GEMs that are intended to be released into the environment.

Why focus on releasing GEMs into the wild? Take bioremediation as a prime example: scientists have been exploring the use of engineered microbes to clean oil spills (citation), fertilize and nourish plants in depleted soil (citation), and act as environmental biosensors to detect pollutants (citation). This symposium opened a vital dialogue on the safety of GEMs past and present, as well as the roles regulators and the public play in the success of these innovations.

Together, representatives from academia, regulatory agencies, and industry discussed the safe and effective development and deployment of future microbiol biotechnologies (citation). As the first genetically engineered probiotic on the market, ZBiotics had an important role to play in the conversation, sharing our insights and advocating for a future where innovation goes hand-in-hand with rigorous safety standards, comprehensive regulatory frameworks, and unwavering commitment to scientific transparency.

We committed to educating the next wave of biotech innovators

In March, we had the opportunity to contribute to educating the next wave of biotech innovators during a guest lecture at the University of Reno. In their course “Controversy in Genetically Modified Organisms, Preparing the Next Stewards of Biotechnology,” we engaged with students by delving into the engineering behind our Pre-Alcohol Probiotic,emphasizing the critical importance of GEM safety, and how we can learn from the successes and failures of past GMOs.

The history of genetic engineering in the laboratory is long, but translating discoveries into real world applications has been riddled with challenges. However, these challenges also mark the threshold of extraordinary potential for innovation. By sharing our journey, insights, and the meticulous science that guides our work, we aim to inspire the next wave of emerging scientists and thinkers who will inevitably play a pivotal role in the future of biotechnology.

One Last Note on GEM Safety

Through these different dialogues at conferences and in classrooms, ZBiotics not only highlighted our ongoing efforts in safe genetic engineering, but also invited collaboration on developing comprehensive tools, guidance, and regulations for the future of GEMs. Our aim? To ensure that the journey of innovation in genetic engineering proceeds with both ambition and caution, for the betterment of society and environment alike.

In all of these conversations, we also discussed the importance of public trust and how we aim to make not only GMOs that are safe, but also GMOs that people want and love. We truly believe in a future where people will pick and choose the GEMs that work for them. The path there is paved with safety, transparency, and putting people first.