As the world grows bigger, science innovation often narrows its focus on the tiny things. Healthcare has seen a massive resurgence in discussion over microscopic organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These nearly invisible beings play a significant role in our lives, and have positive and negative influences on human health. Recently, the microbiome has been a trending topic of discussion. This “brain in our gut” has been shown to impact how fit we are, how susceptible we are to certain diseases, and even how easily we can sink into depression. Currently, the world is reeling from a viral pandemic, as invisible infiltrators overtake our bodies and wreak havoc, ultimately depriving us of the very oxygen we need to survive. No matter how it manifests, good or bad, the clear takeaway is that microorganisms heavily impact our health, our culture, and our future.
E. coli and yeast have long been championed as the workhorses of the research world, tirelessly copying themselves, producing biological products, and being subjected to a multitude of experiments. Companies have been able to monopolize these tiny employees by putting them to work. For example, yeast are responsible for breaking down the sugars that turn plants and water into alcohol. By-products from photosynthetic organisms produce thousands of gallons of eco-friendly fuels. Bacteria and other types of cells produce key therapeutics like insulin and vaccines. However, there is a fundamental issue plaguing the many industries that utilize microorganisms: the technology used to grow them is old.
We have learned so much about cellular development, yet the liquid and solid media we use to grow our bacteria have not been changed in over 50 years. Lysogeny broth (LB), a favorite of scientists in the 1920’s, can still be found lining the sleek shelves of modern laboratories. In science, a world where so many things can go wrong, it is tradition to not want to fix what is not broken. If the yeast grows in a single day, most scientists think: “hey that’s plenty quick enough for me.” But what if it could be done better? We know that a lot goes on inside of cells, but what if innovators started to investigate what may be unnecessary processes to achieve a desired end result? Does the E. coli really need to be focused on unnecessary tasks, when we could have them solely focus on producing the medication needed to overcome a global shortage? Like all good employees, they should be devoting all of their efforts towards the end goal.
If we can optimize and refine the growth and bio-productivity of microorganisms, we would be able to produce more valuable products, and do so quickly. We would also be able to study the organisms that are important to human health but can’t currently grow in labs because conventional laboratory media doesn’t provide them with an adequate nutritional environment. We may be able to have more say in what bacteria dominate our guts, allowing only the species that keep waistlines trim. In short, shaking up the fundamentals of some of the smallest living things on the planet could have a very big impact on our world.