new kind of antibiotic has been developed by researchers at Oregon State University. The new antibiotics are called PPMOs, which stand for peptide-conjugated phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomers. They are “a synthetic analog of DNA or RNA that has the ability to silence the expression of specific genes.” (1) The way that PPMO antibiotics will work is to, “specifically target the underlying genes of a bacterium.” In plain English, PPMOs will genetically modify bacteria.
This may not sound like a horrible thing on initial glance. Bacteria are generally thought of as evil (soap commercials have conditioned us all), something to fight because some bacteria can make people sick and even kill them if their body is overwhelmed by “bad” bacteria. However, bacteria and the other single-celled organisms that make up the human microbiome are intimate parts of each human being.
The bacteria that compose our microbiome work so synergistically with our human cells that the difference between “us” and “the bacteria” is difficult to decipher. Where do “we” begin and “they” end? If all of the bacteria in a person’s microbiome were killed off, that person would die. Bacteria are an intimate and important part of “us.” In genetically modifying “them,” are we genetically modifying “us?”
There are thousands of medical and ethical questions that should be asked about the development of drugs that genetically modify bacteria.