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The Future of Genetically Engineered Probiotics, Part 2: The Potential

ZBiotics’ ideas for the exciting potential of consumer-driven biotechnology

John working in the ZBiotics lab

Welcome to Part 2 of our two-part blog post on the future of genetically engineered probiotics.

Part 2: The Potential of Genetically Engineered Probiotics

When we think about engineered probiotics, we think about how they can improve everyday life.

Modern living creates a host of challenges. And evolution didn’t prepare our bodies to handle them. But genetically engineered probiotics may be able to help.

Here are just a few ideas for how they could do that.

The Way We Eat

The Problems

One of the most important parts of healthy living is nutrition. Beyond the obvious pleasure of eating and drinking, everything we ingest has an impact on our body’s underlying performance. However, plenty of things can go awry in the context of modern life.

Poor absorption of vitamins and minerals from food can make even the most intentional and personalized diets less impactful. This can look like provitamins not being converted into vitamins by our normal metabolic processes. Or it could be that our bodies don’t properly absorb certain minerals, such as nonheme iron (citation). In both cases, our bodies aren’t receiving the full benefit of the essential nutrients they need to function.

Beyond vitamin and mineral intake, the average modern diet does not always support a healthy gut. The human microbiome is a big topic that is still being explored, but many signs point to diverse fiber intake as a massively under-appreciated component of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.

But getting more fiber into our diets is easier said than done. Fiber-fortified foods (e.g. high fiber cereals and snack bars) and fiber supplements can cause gastrointestinal upset like bloating and gas, due to the difficulties our bodies have when trying to digest large amounts of fiber at once. And just getting one type of highly processed fiber doesn’t necessarily create a healthy and diverse microbiome.

Finally, many of the ingredients in modern food are optimized for taste and in-the-moment satisfaction, rather than health. This creates all sorts of issues. Just one example is cholesterol – specifically LDL cholesterol – which in excessive quantities puts people at higher risk of heart disease (citation).

The Future

While challenging, there’s reason to believe that each of these issues could be helped or fixed using genetically engineered probiotics.

We already know that the microbes in our gut help create and absorb nutrients from our diet. What if we could super-charge them to do even more?

Good microbes – like the safe bacteria used in probiotics – could be genetically engineered to increase rates of nutrient absorption, to create microbiome-supporting fiber, or even to break down cholesterol. This could be done in a way that’s similar to how our first product breaks down acetaldehyde.

This would give us more nutrition from the foods we already eat. And – as our bodies get healthier and we start to feel better as a result – it would open the door to better living.

The Way We Feel

The Problems

Plenty of stressors in daily life make us feel worse on a regular basis.

Take exercise. We’ve all experienced being sore after a workout. But sometimes that post-workout burn doesn’t go away, and when it lingers for days it can throw us off our routine. When that happens, life has a tendency to get a bit harder, less consistent, and more stressful.

Exercise recovery issues come from systemic inflammation, which itself is caused by reactive oxygen species and the build-up of free radicals. Inflammation not only strains our recovery, it also slows muscle building (citation). And currently, there is no dependable solution to get back on track – other than rest. This can be frustrating, especially when you’re trying to stick to a schedule, build a habit, or depend on seeing visible progress to stay motivated.

Other stressors are environmental. Our skin, for example, is bombarded by things from the outside world that create issues. UV radiation, temperature, air pollutants, smoking, and diet all can stimulate inflammatory molecules that weaken the structure of our skin and leave us more exposed to the perils of skin damage (citation).

Modern life also presents new challenges that often go unnoticed. Just one example is our water. Heavy metals – which can be present in our drinking water or can bioaccumulate in the seafood we eat – are poisonous and have long-term effects on our bodies (citation).

The Future

Like the issues with our food, genetically engineered probiotics hold promise for addressing these stressors as well.

We could engineer probiotics to express enzymes that reduce or even eliminate inflammatory molecules. Less inflammation would mean faster recovery times and reduced strain on our bodies after working out.

And what if an engineered probiotic could secrete molecules to protect our skin from UV damage – like a natural “all day sunscreen”? Or prevent heavy metals from being absorbed by our bodies, allowing them to pass through our system without harming us?

All of this could be possible with this new technology. The reality is that even the most common daily activities – like going outside or grabbing a cup of water – sometimes have unintended consequences. Luckily, science continues to unveil new ideas and discoveries with the potential to make life better. Genetically engineered probiotics is one such idea – one with loads of promise.

The Way We Live

While genetically engineered probiotics hold promise for everyone (we all eat, move, and interact in the world) their promise could be more fundamental for some.

Sadly, many people around the world still struggle to have their basic human needs met. For example, billions of people don’t have access to safely managed drinking water (citation). The water they have available contains parasites, unsafe bacteria, and other contaminants that are seriously harmful, especially when ingested over long periods of time. While great humanitarian efforts to provide safe drinking water exist, there’s still a need for alternative solutions.

One such alternative could be a genetically engineered probiotic. For those who cannot regularly access clean water, a probiotic engineered to prevent parasites from taking root in the gut could be extremely helpful. Engineered probiotics could help where other solutions can’t, because they have traits that make them unique in the world of global health equity: the ability to be cheaply produced, the power of enzymatic activity, ease of administration, and hardiness in extreme environments. And drinking water is just one idea.

The Future of the Category

One could wonder why we at ZBiotics are so open about our thoughts and ideas. If this technology is so powerful, wouldn’t we want to hide our ideas so we could derive the maximum value from each?

In reality, we see this as a bigger opportunity that we don’t need to hoard to ourselves. There’s plenty of room for many to innovate in this space. And while we are a for-profit company, we care about the development of genetically engineered probiotics as an idea. We care about it reaching its full potential as a product ecosystem. And like all great ecosystems, this one will benefit from a diversity of perspectives and approaches. The only thing we truly care about is that others approach it the right way: ethically, transparently, and sustainably.

Our pre-alcohol product may have been the first genetically engineered probiotic to come to market, but it won’t be the last.

That’s a good thing. We are proud to be part of a scientific community that cares about using genetic engineering in ways that are responsible and positive for the world. We envision a future in which this technology improves our health, gives people more freedom in their daily activities, and makes life better. The more people invested in that vision, the better.

In the meantime, the ZBiotics team remains hard at work. We look forward to showing you what’s next.