In an airy life sciences lab on the fourth floor of Danone’s gleaming new research facility in Utrecht, the Netherlands, amid an array of sleek technology, one machine seems slightly out of place. A marvel of plastic tubing and colorful valves, it looks like an amateur tinkerer’s contraption, or the leftovers from a game of Mousetrap. Even its name sounds a little slapdash: Throughout the lab, it’s known as TIM.
But modest as it appears, TIM is a highly sophisticated piece of medical technology: an artificial gastrointestinal tract. (TIM stands for “TNO intestinal model,” after the Dutch research institute that helped design it.) The machine mimics the extraordinarily complex, dynamic process of human digestion. After foods or ingredients are sent down its chute, they snake through a biochemical obstacle course—confronting the punishing acids of the stomach and the erosive enzymes of the small intestine, monitored all along their daylong trek by watchful researchers.
TIM gives Danone’s scientists a glimpse of how its products will fare inside humans—and how humans might fare with the products inside them.
It’s a crucial element of Danone’s quest to understand the “microbiome,” the teeming mass of 100 trillion or so microorganisms that live in, and on, each of us—most of them in the gut. It’s there, scientists have recently come to understand, that the average person’s 4.4 pounds of bacterial partners do their vital work: manufacturing vitamins and essential acids, building and stimulating the immune system, and regulating digestion. Stanford microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg goes so far as to call the microbiome “a control center for human biology.”
Damage to this control center can have serious consequences. Researchers have found links between imbalances in the gut microbiota and an America’s Most Wanted list of costly health problems, from obesity and diabetes to autoimmune diseases, autism, and depression. They’ve also found evidence that First World eaters may have brought some of these problems on themselves—by rooting out too many “good” microbes through overzealous use of antibiotics, processed foods, and antibacterial sanitizers.
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