I thought this research[i], just published in the journal, Nature, was amazing! Researchers at Rockefeller University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital figured out a way of genetically modifying our own natural gut bacteria in order to have them produce the exact molecules needed to tell cells to reduce glucose in the blood. The potential implications of this are HUGE.
Apparently, bacteria and human cells are different in many ways but also similar, in that they both “…speak what is basically the same chemical language, based on molecules called ligands.” Ligands (like other chemical messengers of the body) bind to receptors on the membranes of human cells in order to produce a biological effect. These researchers wanted to have bacteria produce ligands that would bind to a particular receptor (a G-protein-coupled receptor (GPR 119)), which are highly prevalent in the human digestive tract, and which are involved in glucose regulation and appetite. By genetically modifying gut bacteria that they isolated from human stool, they were able to get the bacteria (a common type of E. coli) to produce a ligand that was almost completely identical to the one that would be produced by our own cells.
One of the lead researchers points out that, “The biggest change in thought in this field over the last 20 years it that our relationship with these bacteria isn’t antagonistic…They are a part of our physiology. What we’re doing is tapping into the native system and manipulating it to our advantage.”[ii]
Isn’t that what we’re doing, in a sense, when we work on enriching our own biomes to avoid disease or to alleviate symptoms of an already present one?! And I just love the idea of using our native (slightly tweaked) gut bugs as “medicine”!
[i] ouis J. Cohen, Daria Esterhazy, Seong-Hwan Kim, Christophe Lemetre, Rhiannon R. Aguilar, Emma A. Gordon, Amanda J. Pickard, Justin R. Cross, Ana B. Emiliano, Sun M. Han, John Chu, Xavier Vila-Farres, Jeremy Kaplitt, Aneta Rogoz, Paula Y. Calle, Craig Hunter, J. Kipchirchir Bitok, Sean F. Brady. Commensal bacteria make GPCR ligands that mimic human signalling molecules. Nature, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/nature23874