Team:Lund/Human Practices

iGEM Lund 2021

iGEM Lund 2021

Human Practices


The core of the iGEM Lund project is to investigate whether it is possible to produce preventative probiotics targeting neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Driven by a will to create something new, it was easy to let our imagination run wild and envision a solution to these diseases.

Early in our Human Practice project, team Lund decided to find the customer before we had a product instead of finishing our preventative probiotics. We had to get out of the lab and do outreach in a covid-safe manner. In the lab, we were gene modifying a bacteria, which we in the future envisioned to distribute to people on a large scale. We had to ask ourselves if the public would accept this solution? With strict GMO regulations in Europe, we were also tackling a political and, by extension, ethical facet of our gene-modified bacteria. Integrated Human Practice work wheel When conducting our human practice project, we decided to adopt the approach of integrated human practices. It meant repeatedly doing outreach efforts to communicate and gather insights from groups of interest, always using newfound insight to continue shifting the project in a better direction.

Jordi Riera, AB-BIOTICS


Firstly we reached out to a company that already operates in the European probiotics market. AB-BIOTICS is a Spanish biotech company that focuses on RnD of natural probiotic strains formulated to meet therapeutic needs and maintain health. We were specifically interested in contacting this company because they already have a product, with Lactobacillus plantarum DR7, in the market that targets the gut-brain axis, just like we envision our product to work.

AB-BIOTICS probiotic products are available in Spain, and they told us they have a very high acceptance amongst the public, especially on the medical market. Their probiotic strains are sold as pills, oil drops, and capsules for oral administration. The main difference is that their product doesn't involve any GMOs. Having a GMO strain complicates the product's release to the market due to current legislation and regulations.

We also received some helpful comments on what to keep in mind while modifying our bacteria. We need to gather more information about our L. reuteri modified strain to know how long it survives in the gut and the amount of inhibitor it can secrete. We could use this information to compute the concentration of bacteria needed and how often we should administer our product.


AB-BIOTICS offered a glimpse into a company already selling probiotics targeting the gut-brain axis. We learned that it’s possible to market these types of probiotics successfully, but that due to regulation in the EU, it’s challenging to do so when the probiotic strain is gene-modified.

After the conversation, we contemplated lyophilizing our strain and formulating it in capsules, pills, or oil drops as they do with their products. AB-BIOTICS are thriving on the medical market, so their type of delivery of the probiotics is probably suitable.

In conclusion, the conversation gave us a direction regarding the target group and an approach to package the probiotic strain in pill form. We also encountered a new set of questions, such as how often people should eat our pills. Lastly, we became acutely aware of the problem with selling genetically modified bacterial strains in the EU.

Zack Abbott, CEO and Co-founder of ZBiotics, PhD


ZBiotics is located in San Francisco, California, and produces and markets a genetically modified probiotic to aid hangovers. The product package is quite fitting for the circumstance, a small shot.

Zack Abbott agreed to speak to team Lund and offer his insights from running a US-based company that promotes gene-modified probiotics. The meeting turned into quite an international event with Zack joining from the USA, a handful of team members joining from Lund, and one team member from the UK. Below is a condensed summary of what we learned from the conversation.

Picture of the meeting with Zack Abbot

Question: Would an “Alzheimer’s prevention probiotic” be attractive on the market?

It’s absolutely not impossible, but you will probably have to market it as a proper drug/medicine because of the health claims needed, and being able to say that it can prevent Alzheimers in everyone due to differences in gut flora from person to person will be even harder. You need to prove a reduction of curli, which then leads to a reduction of plaques in brain *and* that this leads to a lesser chance of neurodegenerative diseases. This act will demand large and long term studies. At the moment it’s very difficult to support the claims. You can only really claim that it reduces curli formation in the gut.

A suggestion is to perhaps call it a supplement and market it as a “probiotic for brain health” in the future.

Question: What do you think about the future of this field? How does the USAs GMO legislation look? What are the restrictions?

The legislation varies a lot depending on where in the world you want to sell/market GMOs. It’s illegal in the EU. It’s available in the US and follows the same basic rules as ordinary food and supplements. Canada has a similar approach to GMO just like in the US. South America has mixed legislation. Asia is generally somewhere between the US and the EU in terms of strictness.

Question: How did you market your product? Target audience? You don't hide the fact that it is a GMO product.

I talked to 10 000 people before the launch in bars and events. One marketing approach was giving out free samples and explaining it. This didn’t exactly work as well as intended as people said “thanks but no thanks”. Instead I gained another type of knowledge when I heard what questions pop up into people’s heads and what words they reacted positively/negatively to. People in America don’t like to admit they get hangovers, it is a quite strong shameful culture around it. This was all incorporated into the marketing.

My advice to you is to talk to people you’re trying to sell it to, find your target audience and do research. It might be people who have a family history of Alzheimer’s etc.

Use accessible language. You’d be surprised how many of the words we use to describe our products actually are science jargon. Talk to non-scientist friends or other intelligent but non-expert people. Try to explain in only 15 seconds (a good elevator pitch is key!). “Amyloid” or “curli fiber” might sound off-putting or scary, or just straight up confusing because no one knows what they mean. “Probiotic” is jargon! Even people who take them don’t know it’s live bacteria, or why they take them. “Enzyme” is also science jargon and wont work with the average Steve. “Protein” is the stuff that’s in chicken and nothing else!

Question: Freeze-drying the probiotic seems to be common, you and other companies do it. Is it possible to sell the freeze dried powder itself to let the customer incorporate it into smoothies, shakes or porridge?

Pills are more medical than like a smoothie or a yogurt etc, and fits the target of the product better. If you are selling smoothies, your target audience must want/like yogurt or smoothies. Pills are just simpler and less complicated.


From the conversation with Zack and AB-BIOTICS, it became clear that our future product should target the medical market and be delivered as a pill. Once again, we confirmed that the EU market wasn't a viable option due to the strict GMO regulations.

Our Human Practice revolves around the potential customer, and Zack offered a new exciting perspective regarding marketing to everyday people. He pointed out that biotech science jargon isn't as commonly understood as we science students might think. His examples that "protein" is what chicken is made of and that many people who take probiotics don't even know it is bacteria was the spark that initiated the next phase.

At the moment, it was evident that we were facing legislation issues in Europe and potential customers that might not be well versed in the jargon of biotechnology. It was about time we got to know the potential customers. The first step was to follow Zack's advice and get out of the lab to ask questions while at the same time doing so in a covid safe way. That resulted in a survey and quantitative data rather than the qualitative data we could have gotten with interviews.

GMO and Probiotics Survey

The discussion with Zack Abbott made us curious to evaluate and quantify everyday people's views on GMOs and probiotics. As a step in our human practice project, we investigated people's opinions and knowledge about probiotics and GMOs. When we started to brainstorm the parts of the project our Human Practice team was in charge of, many questions popped up. What questions does the target audience have for us and our product? Do people know what probiotics are? What do people think of them? Is a genetically modified probiotic that would prevent neurodegenerative diseases even a possible medication to put on the market? We hoped a survey could answer all these questions and more. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, a decision was made to avoid qualitative data collection (interviews or similar) and instead go for quantitative data collecting online. We conducted a survey distributed across different ages and continents to the best of our ability during July 2021. After getting around 100 answers, we closed it and analyzed the data to try and learn what direction the Human Practices project should take next. For all the charts collected from the survey answers, read this pdf.


The conclusions we could draw from the survey helped tremendously in later parts of the project. We identified the primary reasons people don’t already take probiotics regularly or are not planning on starting. It mainly has to do with their habits and lack of knowledge.

A significant challenge is that the everyday person does not know enough about probiotics and GMOs to have an educated opinion. We will also have to convince someone concerned about the health effects of GMO products and who prefers “natural products” about the positive results and show them that there is not anything inherently wrong with GMOs. To combat this, we decided to focus a considerable part of the next step in our project on education and tackling misinformation.

Final Conclusions and How We Moved Forward

For the commercial aspect of our human practice, we found a way to package our future probiotic bacteria. We decided to design our future pill dosage to be suitable for daily usage. We would hopefully make it easier for people to develop a habit of taking the probiotic. The potential end-users will be people with a family history of Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases.

Gradually it has become more evident that our project was no longer just about finding a potential customer. We had steered team Lund into the role of an educator. As our plans grew, we split this project into two medal criteria; “Education & Communication” and “Partnership.” The outreach results and conclusions were used as a baseline when designing the activities related to these criteria. You can find the partnership with team GO Paris-Saclay on this link, and you can find our Education & Communication effort on this link.

We made a workshop guide discussing the different facets of synthetic biology and probiotics for the educational effort. We decided a target audience for our workshop should be high school kids, ages 15-18, since they are starting to learn more about biology but have probably not had the time to form their own opinion on GMOs and probiotics. Hopefully, this would help them understand the basics of what our project was about and have enough knowledge later in life to form educated opinions on the matter. We wanted to contribute to other iGEM teams, and because of the pandemic, we couldn’t meet a new high school class live with good conscience, so we decided to make a guide on how to do an excellent interactive workshop instead. You can read more about this guide here.

The conclusions we could draw from our human practice outreach also contributed to iGETHICS, our partnership with team GO Paris-Saclay since we learned what people were concerned about and could focus our discussion on those relevant questions. The partnership had a clear educational element but with an international audience in mind. You can watch our iGETHICS speech, team Paris-Saclay’s speech and our joint discussion here.