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by Elise Wachspress

For those mesmerized by the early days of tech culture—with characters like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page—one amazing facet of the story was how quickly the movement became democratized. It took little so capital to get into the game—just a lot of free time and access to the silicon chips that redefined how we capture, organize, and transfer data. Soon young people were developing businesses in local hacker clubs or their dorm rooms.

Dreams of launching the next Napster or Myspace attracted many of these enthusiasts into the larger “maker” culture, a kind of crossover between tech and the Arts and Crafts movement. Suddenly it became cool to make not only your own computer and programs, but all kinds of devices and products, with designs personalized to the “maker”—a refutation of mass manufacturing.

One tool that became essential to the movement—in addition to the 3D printer—was the breadboard, a handy tool that allows the user to design and test electrical circuits without having to solder them together permanently (which takes a lot of time and can involve burnt fingers). The reusable breadboard makes it easy to change the capacitors, resistors, power sources, and lights in circuits to find the most effective, energy-efficient way to provide the functions needed for a new device.

Mark Mimee, PhD, wonders: What if we could create a kind of breadboard to optimize the microbiomes in each of our systems? A tool to experiment with “tuning” various species of bacteria, all at the same time, so that the microbes in us deliver the functionalities individualized for our health?

Mimee is a synthetic biologist. He specializes in redesigning microorganisms, turning their genes off and on to change how they perform, what they consume, and the byproducts—metabolites—they produce. Synthetic biologists like Mimee are modifying bacteria to solve costly or difficult problems, like eating up oil spills or manufacturing medications. For centuries, we’ve used bacteria, yeasts, and molds as “factories” for products we use—think cheese and beer—and, within just the past few decades, have learned to engineer microbes to produce insulin. (In fact, in a weird convergence of maker culture and synthetic biology, some hackers are actually using microbes to make their own insulin!)

But Mimee has much more expansive plans. What about engineering bacteria we normally carry in our bodies to home in on inflammation and tamp down those fraught environments? Imagine, say, a microbial allergy treatment that stops the itchiness and congestion without making you sleepy. Or perhaps microbes that can measure intestinal bleeding. Or genetically altered bacteria that can deliver payloads to our resident gut microbes to make them better intestinal citizens.

Mimee and the teams of scientists with whom he works have already done some of these things. The goal now is to figure out how to develop new functionalities that work not just with one individual species, but with an entire a system of species, like a microbial breadboard. He wants to find a way to test how manipulating multiple types of microbes that normally live in the gut—right now, he’s aiming for 12—can provide valuable health functions that are both safe and reliable.

Among the candidates for Mimee’s breadboard is Bacteroides, a type of bacteria often found in the intestines, where it is sometimes associated with diarrhea. But in other parts of the body, Bacteroides can cause serious infections, and the microbe is often resistant to multiple types of antibiotics.

Strangely, however, some strains of these bacteria are found in much lower levels in patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Other Bacteroides strains are enriched. Why? How are the inflammation-associated bacteria involved in disease? What are people with few Bacteroides missing? What functionality are some bugs creating that seems to make them more resistant to inflammatory bowel disease? Figuring that out may lead to treatments—or, better, preventive strategies—to save people from these painful and debilitating diseases.

Needless to say, applying what Mimee is learning about Bacteroides and their effects on other microbes in the system may be clinically useful—and quickly. Gastrointestinal immune diseases—from Crohn’s and colitis to celiac and type 1 diabetes—just happen to be among the strongest clinical and research programs at UChicago, and so Mimee will have the right partners to help advance his work on Bacteroides and how they affect other microbes in the system.

It won’t be soon enough for the many thousands of patients who look forward to a life without constant or unpredictable abdominal distress.

Elise Wachspress is a senior communications strategist for the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development office