People inside a model of an intestine in Dresden, Germany. Photo: Getty
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Intelligent stomachs: what if your gut could remember what you had eaten?

Welcome to the world of synthetic biology.

Soon, there will be no denying that it was you who finished the milk. Biological engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have tweaked human gut microbes to work as a biochemical memory system. The bacteria are equipped with the equivalent of a computer’s circuit components to encode a record of what you consume into a bacterium’s DNA.

The research isn’t primarily aiming to deduce who ate what, however. The tweaked bacteria take chemical signals from their environment as an input to create outputs that are an indicator of health. They might turn on a fluorescent protein, say, so that laboratory analysis can detect problems.

Researchers suggest that their primary use will be in identifying (and perhaps even treating) bowel disease and colon cancer. It is likely that programmable bacteria will also find other applications. They are, in effect, an in-stomach sensor that could tell your body anything. “Stop eating this stuff – it’s killing you,” they might say.

The bacterium might simply let you know when you have had enough to eat. Or, if you eat the wrong stuff, it could release chemicals that act as painful stimuli. People with addictions could have bacterial reactions – such as nausea – triggered by the problem substance. The bugs could even be made to produce a pharmaceutical treatment in the body: when they detect a problem, they could feasibly synthesise a chemical solution.

It is unfortunate that the field of synthetic biology has adopted a name with negative connotations. The term “synthetic” can trigger concerns similar to those evoked by “genetic modification”. That’s why UK government funding for synthetic biology is now tied to responsible innovation that proceeds while taking public concerns into account. Though the field is led by US researchers, the UK comes in second, producing about a tenth of the world’s output in papers on synthetic biology.

As with genetic modification, there is little need to panic. Indeed, in some areas, synthetic biology should alleviate public concerns. In a paper published this month, German researchers point out that the tools of synthetic biology can do away with the need for transporting dangerous pathogens around the world – a risky practice. Instead, the pathogen’s genome can be sequenced where it is found and its genetic code emailed to labs for re-creation and analysis in a safe environment.

New advances in synthetic biology are arriving all the time. Last month, researchers at Harvard University unveiled a bacterium with a body clock. E coli doesn’t normally have any kind of circadian rhythm, but when the researchers implanted a protein-based clock mechanism from another organism, the E coli turned a fluorescent protein on and off in a regular, 24-hour cycle. It’s a relatively short step from there to having a gut bacterium that will create and release insulin-regulating drugs or other medicines on a daily schedule.

The new work brings this possibility closer. Although E coli is not a great human companion, the bacterium used in the MIT study is a standard, problem-free inhabitant of the human gut. So, synthetic biology has just got personal. It was only last year that Pamela Silver told Harvard Magazine, “Biological machines and biological computers – all of that should soon become a reality.” This is a field that is progressing rapidly. Steal food while you still can.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR