Personalizing Probiotics

Biologist plans to program bacteria as tailored treatments

May 12, 2014
Outside Magazine

Probiotics in yogurt are good for your gut, but not nearly as cool as targeted and edible probiotic bacteria.    Rixipix/Getty Images

By now, it's common knowledge that probiotics are good for your health (and, yes, maybe even your sex drive). The entire state of New York even adopted everyone's favorite probiotic-rich food, yogurt, as the state snack last week, though not without some hand-wringing. But probiotics are not considered a significant medical tool—yet.

A new project at Rice University aims to elevate probiotics from simply bacteria found in foods to a targeted treatment that can be tailored to different genetic backgrounds or diets. The first customer: the U.S. Navy.

Synthetic biologist Jeff Tabor, who is spearheading the project, says that microflora in our bodies can provide benefits above and beyond what evolution might, since those benefits "yield no competitive advantage for the bacteria." Tabor wants to program these types of organisms to reliably sense and respond to diseases, particularly those related to mood and weight.

For their first project, the team wants to engineer an edible probiotic organism that actively seeks out chemical signals of weakened intestinal lining. The organism will then produce a chemical that strengthens the lining, keeping disease-inducing molecules from getting into the bloodstream. In this case, they hope it will protect sailors in the Navy from chronic diseases like obesity and depression.

After that, who knows? "There are about 10 times more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells," Tabor pointed out in a press release from Rice. In fact, the microbiome of bacteria in our bodies contains more genetic information than the human genome itself. Disappointingly for New York, it may not be long before programmable, edible probiotics steal the spotlight from yogurt.