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Hangovers have brutalized drinkers for millennia. From prairie oysters to chugging Gatorade or water, so-called cures have been anything but. Now, Zack Abbott and ZBiotics adopted a distinctly scientific approach to the problem. In a wide ranging interview, he discusses everything from genetically engineered foods to the challenges of running a company.
Where did the idea for ZBiotics come from?
I’ve got a PhD in microbiology – I’ve worked in academia doing research as well as in labs and for for-profit companies, always with a focus on genetic engineering.
Early in my career, I was working in a lab doing HIV research and saw the amazing potential of protein therapies, but was told they were extremely expensive and impractical for most applications. I couldn’t stop thinking about figuring out a solution for delivering proteins more efficiently, and it got me thinking about genetically engineering probiotic bacteria to express specific proteins to bring new functions to the human body.
As the whole point was to make the technology more practical and accessible, I started thinking about applications of the technology that could help healthy people in their normal lives. That led me to my first proof-of-concept application: the unwanted byproduct of alcohol, called acetaldehyde.
Normally the body breaks down acetaldehyde in the liver, but a lot of acetaldehyde is actually formed in the gut by your microbiome. I thought, what if we could break it down in the gut, before it’s absorbed by the body? Could that eliminate some of the day-after effects of drinking? That was the beginning of ZBiotics. But that was only the proof of concept; we’re working on lots of applications of this technology for all kinds of products.
What is ZBiotics and how is it made?
ZBiotics is a beverage containing the world’s first genetically engineered probiotic, purpose-built to help break down a toxic byproduct of alcohol that’s associated with the day-after effects of drinking.
We started with a safe probiotic bacteria used for centuries in fermented foods like natto and kombucha, and then engineered it to express an enzyme to break down acetaldehyde. This enzyme is similar to one already expressed by your liver, and by 70% of all life on the planet.
We essentially just combined two very common and natural things together to make our key probiotic. We then grow the bacteria, purify them, and add them along with a small amount of flavoring to a small 0.5oz beverage — that’s ZBiotics.
Can you discuss making the transition from the lab to the C-suite? Were certain skill sets similar? What were key adjustments?
I very naively thought that the science would be the most difficult part of starting ZBiotics. As it turned out, the science was the easy part! I understood the science; I knew how to design experiments and troubleshoot as issues arose.
Once the scientific groundwork had been laid and I had to switch to running a business as a CEO, I encountered all kinds of problems that a PhD did not prepare me for. Customer service, branding, marketing, press, manufacturing, fundraising, regulatory considerations… they required a lot of learning on the job. But I did find that thinking like a scientist (gather data, test hypotheses, challenge your biases) was very valuable even in this diverse and new set of challenges.
All that said, in reality the skill from my PhD training that has served me best is collaboration; this company would not exist if I didn’t have my co-founder Stephen as COO. There are lots things I can do for this company, but many that I can’t, so the best thing I ever did as CEO of ZBiotics was team up with him and benefit from all his skills and background in business and law that I don’t have.
Speaking of business, the company makes a very bold decision to declare “Proudly made with genetic engineering.” This can cost sales due to the way genetically modified foods are viewed by many in the public. Can you explain the decision to include it?
We have been deliberately transparent about being GMO. We lead with it. Our experience has been that most people don’t see it as a negative as long as it delivers a benefit. The fact that ZBiotics is GMO has not concerned them because they see the benefit.
The reason we chose to be transparent was not only because we believe consumers should have the right to know what they are consuming and make up their own minds, but also because the mission of ZBiotics is to elevate the conversation around GMOs and genetic engineering more broadly. We do not advocate for GMOs because we have a GMO product; I started this company and made a GMO product to advocate for GMOs.
And so far we’ve seen that if we are transparent with consumers that the products are made with genetic engineering, and we explain why they are genetically engineered — specifically to provide a benefit for the consumer — consumers have been very open and willing to accept it, which was our hypothesis to begin with.
There’s still a general resignation among a significant portion of the public when it comes to genetic engineered products. Can you discuss general safety concerns and how you tested ZBiotics?
The probiotic in ZBiotic is something you probably already eat every day – we’ve just engineered it to express an enzyme similar to the one your liver already uses to break down acetaldehyde.
As I said before, it is really just a combination of two things we already know to be very common and safe. However, we’ve also done extensive safety testing and published our safety results on our website and in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (citation).
In addition, we assembled an independent panel of expert food-toxicologists and asked them to review our data and make a determination of safety. They reviewed all of our experimental data and determined the product to be safe for human consumption. We’ve since had tens of thousands of people use the product without any safety issues.
Cancer is a common danger critics often associate with GM foods. A cursory search for homologous recombination deficiencies provides talking points for their arguments. How would you address this?
I am unfamiliar with any scientific peer-reviewed data that shows any link between genetic engineering itself and cancer. Indeed, several unbiased sources such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have independently determined that there is no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that genetic engineering is inherently unsafe.
Genetic engineering is a tool; the result is a genetically modified organism, and each organism that results is different and has a unique safety profile. Each resulting organism needs to be evaluated for safety, as they could potentially have very different safety profiles. But the act of changing their DNA itself does not make them unsafe; only what has been changed specifically could have an effect on their safety.
Homologous recombination is a natural process that bacteria have used for literally billions of years to change their DNA. It is a much older and more precise form of natural DNA exchange than even plant crossbreeding, which is another (much messier) form of DNA editing that humans utilize all the time. The idea that using homologous recombination inherently makes a bacteria carcinogenic does not make any sense whatsoever. If that were the case, then literally every single bacteria on the planet would be a carcinogen, since they are constantly engaging in homologous recombination naturally.
When a scientist uses homologous recombination to modify a bacteria, all that scientist is doing is mixing a bacteria with a piece of DNA, and then waiting for that bacteria to naturally take up that DNA and integrate it into its chromosome using processes that the bacteria have evolved for the last 3 billion years. It is a process that literally takes place trillions of times on your skin and in your gut every day by the natural microbes that live there.
Another concern likely to arise concerns microbiota. To what extent would recombination between the genetic sequence inserted in ZB183 occur with gut bacteria?
Because our bacteria were designed with the end goal in mind of human ingestion, we were very deliberate about the design of the bacteria to make sure that the likelihood of recombination with the gut microbiome would not be enhanced, and more to the point, even if it did, that would not be dangerous.
The construct is integrated chromosomally in our probiotic bacteria, within no mobile genetic elements and containing no selective advantage such as an antibiotic resistance cassette. It only contains the coding region for an enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde, a rare and unequivocally unbeneficial molecule, both for humans and bacteria.
In the unlikely event that a gut microbe did recombine to get this piece of DNA, it would have no selective advantage and would not find very much use for the gene, but its continued expression of the gene in your gut would not be a danger to you or your microbiome.
What is the most exciting development in the genetic engineering field?
That’s a difficult one to choose! I guess the simple answer is the continued decrease in the cost and time associated with reading and writing DNA. 15 years ago, ZBiotics could never have gotten off the ground, but today because it is so accessible and cheap to sequence and construct DNA, companies like us are able to start without having to raise significant capital and apply the power of biology to the existential crises facing humanity.
Companies are using genetic engineering and synthetic biology to combat climate change, make more sustainable materials and ingredients, make food more ethically sourced and democratically accessible to a growing human population, and combat disease, just to name a few big buckets. It’s a very exciting time, and as humans learn to partner with biology, rather than work against it (as we did last century in an unprecedented way), we will hopefully stabilize our place on this planet.
What role do you see commercial genetically engineered products playing in 10 years and 50 years into the future?
I think genetically engineered products are what allow humanity to grow more sustainably in the next 10 to 50 years. Likely the first areas of adoption and acceptance will be in the bio-materials space (e.g. clothing, bio-plastics, self-healing concrete). We can make these materials far more sustainably and efficiently with microbes than with chemistry or agriculture.
Food will also see huge advances in sustainability and ethical sourcing; for example it is way more sustainable and ethical to use a microbe to manufacture egg proteins (as Clara Foods is doing) than to use factory farms to grow chickens to make eggs. And of course medicine will continue to benefit from genetic engineering. We already make several life-saving drugs such as insulin and several cancer therapies using GMOs, and genetic engineering will continue to drive innovation and benefit in this space.
Put more broadly, I believe that the 21st century will be the century of biology, much like the 20th century was the century of chemistry. But biology can produce more sustainable and more powerful products that can benefit humanity in a way that doesn’t compete with nature, but instead works alongside it.
Human beings have been waking up, hungover and hating life, and vowing to never drink again at least since ancient Egyptian times, if not longer. An effective hangover cure has probably been the Holy Grail among drinkers for about the same time. Do you have any final words for an appreciative drinking public?
Alcohol affects everyone differently. We remind our customers that tried-and-true methods such as pacing yourself, knowing your limits, drinking plenty of water, not drinking alcohol on an empty stomach, arranging a safe ride home, and getting plenty of sleep are the best ways to avoid a hangover. ZBiotics is meant not to replace responsible drinking habits, but to go alongside them.
IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons; ZBiotics