Artificial gut exposes microbiome; New Way to Explore Human Microbiome?
Microbiome- a collection of trillions of bacteria that reside in & on our bodies. Each individual’s microbiome is unique just like a fingerprint and scientists are finding more & more ways in which it impacts our health and our daily lives. One of the examples involves an apparent link between the brain & the bacteria in the gut. The brain-gut “axis” is believed to influence conditions like Parkinson’s disease, depression, & irritable bowel syndrome. However, many research studies into the brain-gut axis have stalled because of one central problem. That is the lack of an adequate testable model of the gut.
Currently, available testing platforms cannot emulate the human gut accurately & cheaply enough for large-scale studies. The worldwide research community needs something new, which is what a research team of MIT Lincoln Laboratory is tackling now in a project funded through the Technology Office. Scientists there aim to create a perfect artificial gut.
Todd Thorsen, the project’s principal investigator from the Biological & Chemical Technologies Group, said that the question from the mechanical side is, how to emulate the colon. Bacteria in the colon occupies a lot of ecological niches.
Thorsen is referring to the complexity of our human gut, which includes a community of 100 trillion microbes that all have specific, & sometimes clashing, needs. Certain types of bacterias in the gut will actually die in the presence of oxygen, while others need it to survive. The gut also contains both hard & soft mucus that allows different types of bacterias to grow. And all of these conditions need to be mimicked in a single platform for properly maintaining & testing microbiome samples, but that is not an easy task.
David Walsh from the Biological & Chemical Technologies Group, who led the device’s development & fabrication. Until now, no one has actually been able to culture a microbiome sample and maintain it,” said that if it is possible to maintain a culture, we can do things like add toxins & therapeutics to see how they change the culture over time.
In order to address this problem, the lab team developed a multi-material platform made of permeable silicon rubber & other plastics, such as polystyrene, all of which are cheap & that can be rapidly prototyped. The 2 components of the platform emulate the essential oxygen & mucosal gradients.
Air diffuses through the plastic while blue ports allow the research team to change the local oxygen concentration at different positions within the adjacent microculture chambers. And both the components implement careful geometry to yield the precise conditions found in the gut.
Walsh added that the final system will allow the team to tackle real-world problems. The problems, in addition to unraveling the brain-gut axis, includes developing resilience to current & emerging pathogens, combating biological warfare, & more.
This year, the team is partnering with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Northeastern University & the University of California to implement the first tests of microbiome samples to study links to Parkinson’s disease. The lab’s role is to use the artificial gut to culture microbiome samples taken from people with & without Parkinson’s disease and test what happens when different suspected adverse influencers are actually added. The goal of this is to correlate how changes in the microbiome caused by exposure to certain toxins may induce Parkinson’s like nerve damages.
The lab will also continue advancing other aspects of the project. Some of the examples include building a tubular core-shell origami-like gut that rolls up during assembly to emulate the colon & the surrounding vascularized tissue and developing modeling software to predict how microbial communities might change over time.
Editor’s Note: Artificial gut exposes microbiome, the new way to explore the human microbiome, new research study, MIT Lincoln Laboratory.