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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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