It's a drizzly morning on New York's Upper East Side, and Rockefeller University microbiologist David Thaler is sipping a double espresso amid the retro-hippie pillows and dangling paper stars of Java Girl, a favorite haunt of the neighborhood's brainiac Nobel laureates, aging poets and famous entertainers. Thaler somehow manages to embody all three—a long, graying ponytail curling down the middle of his back, wire-frame glasses askew over expansive brown eyes, and a schnozz to rival an Einstein, Ginsberg or Allen. Thaler is one of the leading cheerleaders for a new field of biotechnology aimed at engineering the bacteria inside us to deliver drugs, destroy tumors, actively fight infection, and even vaccinate against their disease-causing kin.
Our ancestors, Thaler explains, emerged from the Stone Age by genetically engineering plants and animals through selective breeding, transforming the wolves that preyed on their flocks into the domestic dogs that would guard them. "Except for wild-caught fish, virtually everything we eat today has been engineered," he says. "Meanwhile, we're walking through this ocean of bacteria and only looking at them as something that can make us sick, rather than something to cultivate." He believes that it's time to move humanity from being microbe exterminators to microbe farmers.
Thaler thinks we need what he calls a "second Neolithic revolution." Although his day job as a microbiologist at Rockefeller revolves around such abstract research as testing life's speed limit (current record for replication: eight minutes), he sees himself as an idea man, someone who might help advance an entirely different mind-set in medical microbiology: Instead of using antibiotics to kill harmful bacteria in our bodies and our environment, why not coax bacteria to do our bidding?
"The technology to harness these bacteria exists," Thaler says. Biotechnology firms already use bacteria like E. coli as tiny factories. Just slip the DNA instructions for, say, a new protein-based drug into E. coli and, in its endless quest to replicate itself, the bacterium will replicate the drug as well.
But it's one thing to employ genetically engineered bacteria to produce pharmaceuticals inside a sealed vat. It's quite another to deploy what some call "Frankenbugs" inside a patient. The same characteristics that make bacteria so amenable to genetic engineering—their malleability, their incredible replication speed, their genetic promiscuity—allow their newly acquired DNA to spread to other microbes, including potentially dangerous ones.
Such concerns have largely kept the first generation of engineered superbugs confined to biohazard-containment labs. But the few microbes that have made it into limited human trials—a cavity stopper, a tumor destroyer, a bowel soother—have been enticingly successful. And so the first standoff over body-ready bugs is taking place before the review boards of medical centers and government regulatory agencies, the people who will decide if the world is ready for engineered superbugs.
"I honestly think people are more comfortable with the idea of nano-robots scurrying through their bodies than they are of deploying bacteria," Thaler muses. "But when you think about it, you cultivate your lawn. You'd probably like to cultivate your internal landscape."
“I honestly think people are more comfortable with the idea of nano-robots scurrying through their bodies than they are of deploying bacteria,” Thaler muses. “But when you think about it, you cultivate your lawn. You’d probably like to cultivate your internal landscape.”
Well said. After we can overcome the hurdles of human timidness toward the implementation of modified bacteria in our bodies, there seems to be an entirely open and new scope of research in terms of productive bacteria. Instead of trying to create new cures and treatments for age old problems, why not manipulate something already in existence and change harmful bacteria into helpful bacteria?
i think people are more willing to adapt than you think i my self think this is a very posible option for the future.
Once we understand the bacteria or virus genome, we could even reprogram them to hunt down other bacteria or viruses such as Flesh eating bacteria and HIV viruses. they can have a set lifetime of only a few days and have their reproductive genes removed or replaced.
The solution to all of humankind's problems is undoubtedly a natural one. Sunlight, modified bacteria, and algae are our friends. I know it sounds utopian, but seriously, we just need to make nature work for us in a symbiotic way. True, it may mean altering nature through genetic manipulation; but the point is that it can be done.
We have been talking in my Microbiology class about using viruses to carry the (gene manipulated) cure for diabetes; make the body produce it's own insulin again. This is the wave of the future for treatments. There is a huge potential benefit to gene therapy.
I was an AP biology teacher In 1993. Back then I asked a friend who was a doctor if some gut microbe couldn't be engineered to deliver insulin. He laughed. He said the naturally occuring bacteria are too well adapted to share space with a suboptimal organism. I countered that we could start with a patient's own flora, but he said simply adding or deleting anything would render it suboptimal.
In 1997 we attended a lecture on genetic medicine at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the doctor was very sharp and forward-thinking. He said these avenues are "interesting but beyond our reach at present."
In 1999 my wife graduated with a B.A. in microbiology and almost every honor her university confers. Her signature position was that we view microorganisms the wrong way--a very small percentage are pathogens, while a large number are symbiotes--that we need to learn to work with them. Anyway, I asked her to mention my idea to her faculty. When she did, she was ridiculed by the full professors, tolerated by the more recent Ph.D.s, and taken quite seriously by the M.S. level instructors and graduate students. I'm gratified that she stuck with it long enough for us to learn that tenure often seems to impair the mind!
Fast forward to 2008. People are actually talking about my idea; while her idea is far more important. This plethora of Antimicrobial products not only threatens our personal micro-biomes, but it also accelerates resistance. These products should be tightly controlled lest we really do produce superbugs: PATHOGENS!
It's great if we can get friendly bacteria to do good things for us; it's terrible if we end up killing them off every time we use soap, toothpaste, lotion or even drink water!
Well, we do have one that eats oil spills then dies of hunger when the source is depleted... Sometimes there are some pretty cool successes.
Naturally our own bodies have bacteria that were not part of our makeup before that do all kinds of things symbiotically - not the least of which is digestion.
The concern is more like the problem in nature when a bacteria or virus gets in a mutated state that causes it to breed fast in a crowded environment and start causing disabilities and death. Don't think for an instant that a genetic 'bug' for good or ill will be the same for everyone, just like some people have large reactions to things like chicken pox and some people get killed by simple diseases on a wide scale.
Just some thoughts :)
in the words of homer simpson.... holy crap! or maybe just, crap. you work for popsci, folks... what in the *#@* was that? to begin with, how long did it take you to make the two custom length leather straps? more than five minutes, to be sure. how long did you have to look for a belt with a buckle that size? i have never seen a belt like that in my life. wait, i'm sorry, let's start with who in the *&^% would want to do this in the first place? let's assume that you are actually trying to come up with 5 minute projects that someone might want to attempt, and using that assumption lets assume that even one of you has a little pride in what they do. if either of those statements are true, the video i jsut whatched is either the result of complete indifference, or complete ignorance. if this is where my subscription dollars are going, please do a five minute project teaching me how to unsubscribe.
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The concept of using what should kill to relieve sickining people by minor modification to the basics of such is very interresting. although it is very hard to understand by many people, but it is the basic truth.
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I think we have a natural, existing, means to to fight tooth decay. I am 73 years old and I have no cavities. I am curious has anyone thought to find out why some people donot have cavities? I eat far too much sugar. I am not being treated with any anticavity agents, including flourides, which I think will be banned someday.