The world's first GMO probiotic is for sale; it's designed to prevent hangovers

The product, made by ZBiotics, is regulated as a food, not a drug, and has not been vetted for effectiveness in humans by Ryan Cross
AUGUST 19, 2019

On Saturday, a San Francisco-based start-up called ZBiotics celebrated the launch of its first product in a fitting way: with a party. The ZBiotics team headed to a Mission District nightclub called Public Works and handed out shot-sized vials of its new probiotic drink. The vials were filled with bacteria that the company had genetically engineered to break down acetaldehyde—a molecule that lingers in the body after alcohol is metabolized.

Biotech’s latest target? The hangover.

ZBiotics began selling the drink online last week. It’s likely the world’s first genetically engineered probiotic, and the start-up isn’t bashful that it’s a genetically-modified organism, or GMO. Remarkably, the company was founded just three years ago and has raised only $3.3 million. The start-up can move fast since its probiotic is considered a food, not a drug, and thus doesn't have to be proven effective in humans.

Numerous other biotech firms have collectively raised hundreds of millions of dollars to engineer or isolate bacteria intended to treat metabolic diseases and cancer. They need that money to conduct clinical trials and ultimately earn approval from the US Food & Drug Administration. ZBiotics is bucking that trend and going straight to consumers.

Zack Abbott, a microbiologist who cofounded the company in 2016, says he had a long list of wild ideas for GMO probiotics, but none of them excited his friends, or investors, as much as a hangover cure. “It really captured people’s imagination, which was exactly what I wanted to do with the technology,” he says.

ZBiotics started with a strain of bacteria, Bacillus subtilis, found in other probiotics and in a traditional Japanese dish of fermented soybeans called nattō. The start-up simply added a gene for acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, the enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is linked to the hangover headache, although some studies dispute the connection.

One reason to think that accelerating the breakdown of acetaldehyde would be helpful is what happens when breakdown is blocked. Disulfiram, a drug prescribed to people with alcohol dependence, inhibits acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and causes a person to feel sick after drinking even a small amount of alcohol.

The ZBiotics website jabs at hangover remedies based on plant extracts and nutritional supplements. They are not known to break down acetaldehyde, the firm says, and are unproven in their ability to help with a hangover.

Engineering the bacteria didn’t require the use of CRISPR. Instead, the company relied on an older process called homologous recombination, in which a cell swaps one chunk of DNA out for another. John W. Oliver, the start-up’s head of R&D, calls this “scarless genome editing,” meaning that the final strain is free of any plasmids or antibiotic resistance markers—tools commonly used to create and isolate genetically engineered microbes.

It didn’t take long for ZBiotics to make the designer bug. In fact, the firm has spend most of its existence just testing it. A paper that the firm recently posted on bioRxiv, a site for self-publication of papers that have not yet been peer reviewed, indicates that rats fed the probiotic for 90 days seemed healthy (bioRxiv 2019, DOI: 10.1101/724542). The paper is now undergoing formal peer review at the Journal of Toxicology.