Better, stronger, faster. Programming our gut bacteria to detect the early warning signs of disease and help keep us healthy may sound like science fiction, but researchers have already begun developing and testing the new technology—and the results look promising.
Building upon data from a previous study involving E. coli bacteria, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently created a genetically modified version of common type of bacteria found in the human gut called Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron. They then tested the modified bacteria on mice.
The upgraded B. thetaiotaomicron bacteria were equipped with microscopic circuits and sensors, as well as a “genetic memory” to help them identify DNA patterns and send a signal when they encounter abnormalities such as inflammation or bleeding. Not only did the alterations allow the bacteria to function as a possible disease detector, but they also helped protect them from being killed by antimicrobial molecules in the gut.
Using food as a control method, the research team was able to activate certain genes within the bacteria and modify their response to their environment based on what the mice were fed. Their hope is that similar modified bacteria may one day be used to help detect and possibly alter the genes involved with certain diseases and conditions (including obesity) to ultimately improve treatment and health outcomes.
Knowing that each individual has a unique microbiome and this new technology may not be a “one size fits all” solution, researchers have already planned additional research to analyze how such modified bacteria may function in different environments.