CAN THE MICROBIOME BE ALTERED TO IMPROVE HUMAN HEALTH?
The microbiome and health can be affected by diet. But what if that is not enough? In principle, the microbiome can be engineered to produce essential vitamins and other useful nutrients, reduce the production of toxic compounds, and even detect and/or remove toxins and adverse compounds. For the latter case, the removal of toxic compounds can be achieved using bacteria that sense the compounds and then induce a detoxifying system. The technologies to be able to manipulate our gut bacteria already exist, but our understanding of the levels of products needed and the possible side effects is unknown and will require considerable testing to complete.
Improving health using engineered bacteria that reside in people could prove difficult. In many societies there is a strong aversion to the use of genetically modified organisms in food—attempts to employ these techniques directly in the human gut could confront a very high regulatory barrier. On the other hand, it likely will be possible to modify the guts of livestock to make foods that are healthier for people: for example, a chicken or pig that produces more essential vitamins. These animals, in turn, could be eaten with minimal consumption of the modified bacteria, which would remain in the animal gut and not be consumed by people.
Finally, although not yet identified, it is also likely that many natural microbes exist in our gut that can remove/metabolize exogenous compounds such as drugs. By identifying and controlling the level of such organisms through diet, probiotics, or perhaps even through genetic engineering, it may be possible to manipulate our ability to respond to medical therapeutics. Overall, it is likely that understanding and manipulating our microbiome will play a key role in managing our health in a wide variety of ways.