Microbiome: Better health with gene editing?
Microorganisms play a significant role in our health and have intricate relationships with other living systems. Scientists are investigating whether gene editing can allow us to control which substances microorganisms break down and produce. This could have a positive impact on reducing pollution, creating medicines, and improving gut health. Modified microbes have already shown promise in cancer treatment for mice, with human trials on the horizon.
One researcher, Brad Ringeisen, is leading a team focused on using CRISPR to alter the behavior of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and archaea. The goal is to restore the gut microbiome to a healthier state, starting with cows. Methane emissions from cattle contribute to climate change, so the team aims to modify the microbes in the cows’ rumen to produce less or no methane.
Ringeisen compares altering existing microbes to a conductor fine-tuning an orchestra. By adjusting the microbiome, they hope to create a healthier balance and avoid harmful inflammation or gut damage. The team also considers the potential benefits of CRISPR microbiome treatment for human infants, as their microbiome is particularly easy to shape during the first two years of life.
However, a challenge in developing these treatments is ensuring they work consistently across different individuals with varied microbiomes. Some researchers have explored introducing modified microbes into mice and found mixed results. Nevertheless, a company called Novome has shown promising results in humans, engineering microbes to break down compounds contributing to kidney stone formation and treating bowel conditions.
While the development of “designer microbes” has been ongoing for decades, recent advances have brought us closer to the reality of using gene editing for improved health. Ringeisen estimates that human treatments may still be four to six years away, with cow treatments potentially arriving sooner.