Designer Symbiots

Ken Clements (
Sat, 09 Oct 1999 19:17:40 -0700

Dear Extropians,

It seems to me that we could get started in the process of modifying human beings by starting with the symbiotic organisms that live inside of human beings. Those who know me will recall that I have written about replacing the mitochondria of living cells with tiny machines, nanochondria. The power of having nanochondria in all your cells is almost limitless, but that is the general case of most faculties in the post nanotechnology world. Lately, however, I have been thinking about what can be done now to take some small steps in this direction. One possibility is to modifying structures that are not quite as intimate as mitochondria and much easier to manipulate, for example colon bacteria.

The bacterium, Escherichia coli, is probably the most studied organism of all time. It is a common platform for the genetic engineering of new enzymes and potential pharmaceuticals. The enzyme systems of E. coli are quite robust and admired for their ability to metabolize a wide variety of possible nutrition sources. It has been known for some time that E. coli provide human beings with a number of important vitamins. It seems to me that a straightforward use of genetic engineering would be to insert more genes into E. coli in order to have it provide a more complete vitamin source to humans. I feel this could do a great deal of good in the Third World where even the low cost of vitamins is prohibitive. It is clear this could have an impact upon the health and mental development of millions of people in malnourished areas of the world.

Closer to home, this could provide a strain of E. coli that has been loaded with a gene that suppresses the enzyme in strain O157:H7 that facilitates destruction of the intestine lining. Also, it may be possible to set this gene to be easily passed to O157:H7 (and other strains) so as to make them more civilized. It may also be possible to modify E. coli to break down some toxins that you wish you had not ingested.

Of course, there would be some difficulties. First comes the general acceptance of anything that is genetically engineered. Then there is the fear that something living inside of you may mutate to be unsafe. One would not expect the vitamin companies to be too happy about this new development.

Could we get going this way? Do you think this is a valuable step? Would the existing research community fund it? Do you think the political problems will be solvable? If not, what human modification will be accepted, and when?