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Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Microbes have been on my mind this week. These tiny organisms are everywhere, and the ones that reside in our bodies appear to be incredibly important for our health.

Microbes are ancient—they were evolving on the planet for millions of years before humans came along. So it’s no surprise that they’ve developed intricate relationships with other living systems. They feed on chemicals in their environments to produce other chemicals—some of which are more beneficial to nearby organisms than others.

The question is: can we tweak the genomes of these microbes to control exactly which chemicals they break down or produce? Imagine the possibilities. What if we could get microbes to help us reduce pollution? What if we could create microbes that make medicines, or that churn out gut-friendly products in our intestines?

Modified microbes seem to help treat cancer in mice, and human trials are on the way, as I reported earlier this year. (For a more general update on gene editing, you can read about how the editing tool CRISPR is already changing people’s...