Putting Your Bacteria to Work

April 4, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

A biotech startup company called uBiome has adopted the concept of crowd sourcing, using the Internet to rally people around a cause, for research on the human microbiome. The microbiome is all the microscopic flora and fauna that live in and on the human body. Humans have 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. But science is just beginning to understand the populations of the microbiome and how they affect a person’s health for good or bad.

What science already knows about the microbiome comes from the $173 million government-funded Human Microbiome Project (HMP). This project took five years and collected and sequenced the microbiome of 250 healthy people. It proved there are at least 1,000 different types of bacteria present on every person. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has made the four terabytes of data from this project available to all researchers via the Microbiome Cloud Project.

Different anatomical sites of the body have different microbial populations. Additionally, the microbial populations that inhabit our bodies vary from person to person, but are very stable within an individual. Each person has their own distinct microbial signature that is unique to them. Most of these microbial species are actually helpful and protect against invading microbes that can cause disease. Some, like certain E. coli in the gut, actually produce essential vitamins that keep us healthy. Alterations in the human microbiome have been associated with diseases like autism, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, and asthma. In some cases, correcting microbial populations associated with disease states may cure or help manage the disease.

A startup company called uMicrobiome is looking to sequence the microbiomes of at least 1,000 more people from all over the world, and they are trying to find volunteers using crowd sourcing. Anyone interested can go to the company’s Web site (ubiome.com), make a pledge, and request a sampling kit, which contains a swab for gently brushing areas of the ears, mouth, genitalia, or gastrointestinal tract. The swabs are placed into a solution that preserves and stabilizes the bacteria for transport back to the lab.

uMicrobiome examines samples for their 16S RNA sequences. These sequences are present in all microbes, but part of the sequence is unique to each different bacterium. This technology of DNA sequencing can determine the different types of bacteria present and their proportions in each sample.

The company puts the results on their Web site for individuals to access and analyze their microbiome. There are also software tools to help users interpret what they are seeing. uMicrobiome secures the data so that it cannot released in an identifiable form. A person can choose to share their data with other citizen scientists for scientific studies or compare their microbiome to others’.

So science to the citizens has arrived! Anyone can learn about their own microbial world and advance this field of science as well. 

For a link to this story, click here. 

The Synthetic Revolution in Biology

Oct. 18, 2013

By Medical Discovery News

Synthetic biology sounds like an oxymoron. One word means artificial while the other means natural. Put together, what those two words really mean is a combination of biology and engineering that will allow scientists to harness biological processes for human use. Imagine genetic engineering and biotechnology on steroids.

In short, synthetic biology aims to manipulate cells or their components to achieve a certain result, such as advancing human health, producing energy, manufacturing products, producing food, or protecting the environment. There are plenty of applications for synthetic biology in many important fields. Scientists want to create cells with new and unique properties that are programmed to fulfill a directed purpose. For example, these engineered cells might be programmed to synthesize new biofuels.

One practical example of the promise of synthetic biology is directed at malaria, a disease caused by a single-celled parasite called Plasmodium that has been killing humans throughout our recorded history. Today, it infects 250 million people worldwide each year and is the No. 1 killer of children under five.

Malaria is currently treated by a group of drugs that are derived from artemisinin, such as artseunate, artemether, and dihydroartemisinin. Artemisinin is a compound from the sweet wormwood plant, which was used as a natural remedy for centuries in China. The downside is that this plant must grow for up to 1.5 years before it can be harvested for drug production. Of course, the normal variables of agriculture – rain, sunlight, soil content, labor – also mean that the supply of sweet wormwood fluctuates. Combined with the expensive manufacturing process, the result is that not everyone who is infected with malaria can be treated.

Synthetic biology has the power to change that. Recently, the World Health Organization gave pharmaceutical giant Sanofi approval to produce artemisinin using a genetically modified form of a yeast called Saccharomyces cervesiae. Several genes are inserted into the yeast’s genome to alter its metabolic pathways to produce a precursor to artemisinin. This has turned a simple organism into a “one-cell factory” for a new source of artemisinin.

Now, it will only take three months to produce artemisinin for antimalarial drugs. It will also insure a steady supply and greatly increases the amount that can be produced at one time. About 25 tons were produced in 2013 and that is expected to double next year. And if that weren’t good enough already, each dose of the yeast-produced artemisinin will only cost 25 cents.

Critics of synthetic biology fear a Frankensteinian world of potentially dangerous biological creations. In that regard, the United States government is drafting guidelines and regulations for this new field. With proper care and funding, synthetic biology will yield many new advances to improve lives as it reaches it potential in the future.  

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