Can Time-Traveling Guts Cure What Ails Us?

VISION: Sample and log people’s intestinal bacteria, so that if they get sick they can restore their gut microbiome to its former healthy state.

TEAM: Yuxin Cheng, Arian Ghousi, Ignacio Garnham, Juliette Van Haren
SCHOOL: Parsons School of Design (2018)

There are trillions of microbes in our bodies—bacteria, yeasts, and viruses—that keep us healthy. Every human’s microbiome is unique, though it may change over time. In fact, babies are inoculated with microbes in utero even before entering the world and we continue to diversify our microbiomes throughout our lives.

Keeping one’s gut in equilibrium with the right mix of microbes is essential to maintaining immunity and a healthy metabolism. If microbial populations fall out of balance—a side effect of antibiotics treatment, chemotherapy, or even long-term travel—people can experience skin allergies, gastrointestinal illnesses, or even type 2 diabetes. But there is evidence that some people who are very ill can return to health if balance is restored to their guts. 

Students from Parsons School of Design considered how to build something like a hard drive for the large intestine—creating backups in case a person gets sick. The result was a speculative “microbial time machine” called Bactoyou that easily collects and sequences the microbial makeup of a person’s gut and stores the data in a report. 

To start the process, users self-sample while in the bathroom by using a collection pad and a sequencing machine placed beside the toilet paper. After the microbial DNA from the feces is sequenced, users would be able to review stored reports and order customized pills containing the same mix of bacteria that lived in their gut at healthier moments in their lives. 

In a video, the Bactoyou team describes a user’s journey: “Mary gets a bacterial infection and is prescribed antibiotics. Over the course of her treatment, she gradually loses parts of her bacterial community. Mary scrolls through past reports in her Bactoyou app and places an order for bacterial supplement pills, customized to her gut microbiome.”

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Cite this Article

Cheng, Yuxin, Arian Ghousi, Ignacio Garnham, Juliette Van Haren. “Can Time-Traveling Guts Cure What Ails Us?” Issues in Science and Technology (April 9, 2021).