Cola-Flavored Genitals, and Other Potential Uses for Microbiome Hacking
A new startup wants to make probiotics for fun, not just health.
One of the irritating things about Silicon Valley start-ups is their frequent insistence that they're going to save the world, which made talking to Gilad Gome, whose latest venture involves hacking your guts, pretty refreshing.
"There's a company that said it wants to hack your microorganisms to help the microflora fight HIV. That's amazing. But that's a crazy claim, isn't it?" he said. "But what if they just said they wanted to hack your biome to make your vagina smell better? You will have less regulatory hurdles because you're not saying you're going to cure AIDS, you're saying 'it might better your vagina.'"
Gome is the founder of blood diagnosis start-up mirOculus and now of new microbiome project Personalized Probiotics. I told him that anyone claiming to better my vagina was crazy in a different way, but then, this is the nascent world of "microbiome hacking."
Gome explained that "literally there are 10 times more microbial cells in our body than human cells." The "microbiota" is the sum of all the microorganisms that live symbiotically in, on and with you, and pretty much are you. When Gome says "microbiome" he's referring to the sum of their genetic material—like the human genome, but of all the bacteria that makes up most of what you refer to as yourself.
"Right now there's a microbiome in our gut, our genital areas," Gome said, gaining speed. "There's a microbiome in our skin, in our mouth, in our nose, in our limbic system."
You're outnumbered in cells and you're outnumbered in genes. "They carry 10 million genes; we carry 23,000 genes. They have more data than us. They are more adaptable to change and they're our first line of defense. When we eat something, when we have an infection, they're the first thing to react," he said.
The laser shoots the DNA that we want At the right time and in the right place...and let's us choose what we want to work on
With the rise of next-generation genetic sequencing methods, the cost of cooking up the ideal probiotic blend for your guts, skin, or genitals is plummeting. We're still a few years and clinical trials away from things like probiotic soap, but it's not that far off.
One major player in the fledgling field is West Coast start-up Cambrian Genomics, a DNA manufacturer that has simplified the process of altering DNA so much it calls it "DNA laser printing." They've partnered with Gome, who predicts that Cambrian is going make DNA sequencing "100 times cheaper."
"The laser shoots the DNA that we want in the right time and in the right place...and let's us choose what we want to work on," Gome said. "We've got the sequence. We know exactly how to put what we want where we want it."
Whether that means genetically modifying some bacteria, or just breeding and introducing ones that do what you want, whatever you're doing is probably going to be less regulated than dabbling in the human genome. Plus, Gome believes that the ultra-adaptive state of our microflora will sort out anything troubling.
In a more typical Silicon Valley manner, Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz boasted about altering the gut microbe for purposes both noble—fighting lactose intolerance, Celiac disease or any "number of horrible diseases where you basically just have to have your intestines cut out and you poop into a bag," he said—as well as pretty silly reasons.
"I don't know about you but I think poop smells not so great," Heinz told This Week in Start-Ups. "We think, on an airplane you're breathing 90 percent farts, right? So it'd be good if they were good smelling."
If [a woman] wants she can hack into her microbiome and make her vagina smell like roses and taste like diet cola
Heinz is literally a guy in San Francisco, walking around trying to make his shit smell like roses. On the one hand, I don't think that percentage is at all right and if people really cared about how their farts smelled, PBR would've gone out of business a hundred years ago. On the other hand, damn, why hasn't someone solved that yet?
Actually, it turns out there's a good reason.
"After talking to many of my professors and my mentors, we determined that to completely eliminate poop smell and really change it to roses, it's going to take some destruction of the gut," Gome told me. "Because we're going to have to completely take over the system and you have to have a lot of diversity in the gut to have a healthy life."
So hey, the gut thing isn't working out. Maybe, just as researchers did for sheep, someone can find out why some people are low-emitters and some are fart machines, and we can all be made to emulate the former.
But less ambitious changes are on the way. Lactobacillus are a friendly bacteria that live in our digestive systems, urinary tracts, and genitals, and Gome's team is working on a new strain that can carry medicinal benefits as well as "pleasant scents and flavors" and can be introduced into the system by insert or food.
"So a woman can protect herself from UTIs, and pathogens by taking a probiotic," Gome said, "and if she wants she can hack into her microbiome and make her vagina smell like roses and taste like diet cola."
I didn't press him on the diet cola thing but yeah, there you go.
"We're just now starting to understand [microbiomes]," Gome said. "Twenty to 30 years ago we had no idea. We just thought digestion was enzymes and salts and the low pH, and the food goes there and we squish it around, but there's so much else going on there. There's another jungle with more than 10 thousand strains of organisms that are living together, eating, creating a food chain inside us. It's very complex. It's a deep place, and it's kind of freaky."