Educational, inclusive, subversive, awe-inspiring, provocative, and empowering: these are the key words that Ara Katz lists when asked to describe her vision for her company called Seed. As Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Ara is on a mission to revolutionize the probiotics industry and overhaul the public conversation around microbiome health, with all of those juicy descriptors as priorities.
With its vibrant and arresting layout, rife with clever design details, Seed's website is quick to command attention on a subject that you might otherwise expect to be dry or dauntingly scientific. The further you dig into the company's work, the more intriguing and accessible the bacterial realm begins to look. Suffice it to say, the site piqued our curiosity, and we were thrilled to have the chance to chat one-on-one with Ara, who proved just as smart and articulate as the company she's built.
In the conversation below, Ara breaks down the science behind the gut health trend in a comprehensible and engaging way, sharing some simple switches we can all make in our daily routines to support our bacterial wellness (and yes, we asked whether products like "probiotic granola" are enough to do the trick). She also explained a surprising connection between the microbiome and the environment, plus talked to use about how she manages her own self-care as a busy mother and business owner. We so admire her equal respect for authentic science and accessibility, and we hope the insights below will blow your mind as much as they did ours.
First of all, let’s break down the basics. Can you give us a simple definition of the microbiome?
The microbiome is the collective genetic material of all the microorganisms (mostly bacteria, but also fungi, protozoa, and viruses) that live in and on your body. The majority reside in your gastrointestinal tract, primarily in your colon or “gut,” but many live in other ecosystems of your body like your mouth, skin, vagina, and armpits. They constitute approximately 50% of you by cell count — an invisible, but powerful half.
And what about probiotics? How do they play a role in the microbiome?
As defined by a 2001 UN/WHO expert panel (chaired by Seed’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid), probiotics are “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” What this means is a strain of bacteria must demonstrate efficacy in a human clinical study to be scientifically viable as a “probiotic.”
As transient microbes, probiotics travel through your colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to directly and indirectly deliver benefits. Some enhance the gene expressions involved in tight junction signaling, which help protect against intestinal permeability (this means tightening your gut barrier). Others trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions for increased motility (think: better, more regular bowel movements). And other bacteria produce byproducts or metabolites like short-chain fatty acids, which have substantial evidence demonstrating their benefits for both metabolic and immune health.
What are some surprising things (be they foods, supplements, or any other habits or practices) that can support the microbiome, and conversely, some that are damaging to gut health?
The microbiome plays a systems-wide role in the human body, and beneficial bacteria (“probiotics”) are a new tool to impact health alongside your daily choices, like diet and exercise.
When it comes to diet, most people don’t eat enough fiber, which is critical to the health of your microbiome. In the past year, compelling research has shown that it’s not just about eating a mostly plant-based diet, but that it’s also about the diversity of those plants — so consume as many different vegetables as you can each week versus being a kale creature of habit.
In addition to containing an abundance of diverse sources of plant fibers and polyphenols (like vegetables, walnuts, pomegranates, berries, and green tea), the healthiest diet for microbiome and human health is:
- high in fiber and microbiota-accessible carbohydrates (like broccoli, brussels sprouts, beans, and sweet potatoes)
- high in Omega-3 and monounsaturated fat (like salmon, sardines, avocados, and olive oil)
- low in sugar, preservative agents, processed foods, and food additives
- low in saturated fat (which encourages growth of fat loving bacteria)
- low in animal protein
Common culprits that perturb the microbiome include:
- The standard Western diet (high intake of red meat, processed foods, fried foods, high-sugar foods and beverages, and refined grains)
- Decreased breastfeeding
- City living
- Environmental factors
- NSAIDs (i.e. Aspirin and Advil)
At this point, the general relationship between the microbiome and human health is more common knowledge than it was, say, five or ten years ago. Many people have heard the terminology, at least! But the relationship between bacteria and environmental sustainability is not so commonly discussed. Can you explain how probiotics might be beneficial for the environment?
We cannot decode the relationship between the microbiome and human health without also understanding how bacteria play a role in the health of our planet.
60% of all wildlife has died off in the past 40 years, marking the beginning of the sixth mass extinction. The cities we make and the materials we use are not sustainable. The plastic we dispose of will fill our ground for another hundred thousand years. But we believe single-celled bacteria may offer solutions. We founded SeedLabs, our environmental R+D arm, to develop and accelerate novel applications of bacteria to solve some of the biggest ecological challenges facing our collective home.
You recently announced your first SeedLabs project, a probiotic for honey bees. Tell us a little bit about that.
As pollinators, honey bees are critical to approximately a third of our global food crops. But widespread pesticide use, along with climate change, disease, and habitat loss, has contributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, reducing honey bee populations at an alarming rate. Until a pesticide-free world is possible, we must find ways to spare them (and our environment) from the side effects.
In collaboration with our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid, and SeedFellow, Brendan Daisley, we have identified probiotic strains that increase immune resilience through a pathway that insects use to adapt to infection, heat, and other stresses. Delivery via Seed’s probiotic BioPatties shows immense potential in tempering the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides, improving survival rates, and restoring honey bee populations around the world. These probiotic BioPatties have also shown success in the prevention and treatment of a fatal bacterial disease called American foulbrood, caused by a spore forming bacterium called P. larvae.
Steps are being taken to expand the research with beekeepers and farmers around the world, and the IP filed will be open-sourced. Field tests have begun in Canada and California. The results are promising and the development of a spray-based formula is also underway.
So cool (and so needed). Back to human ecosystems — the microbiome seems to be having a moment. What’s your take on the increasing public interest in gut health and the rising trends surrounding probiotics, with more and more items like probiotic-infused chocolate and granola hitting the market these days? (Speaking of which, do those gimmicky things “count?”)
The rise of “wellness” has ushered in a wave of consumer enthusiasm and self-care, but has also propelled a category filled with misleading messaging, questionable products, hyperbolic claims, and a shift away from science. Misinformation, confounded by confirmation bias, spreads faster and deeper than truth — and this means misguided choices and misspent dollars that have the potential to compromise health.
Microbiome science and the field of probiotics is no exception. “Gut mania” and an under-regulated category has put consumers ahead of the science. The result: a saturated industry comprised of products that don’t meet the globally-accepted, scientific definition of probiotics mentioned earlier in our conversation: “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” The proliferation of “probiotics” across supplements, beverages, foods, and even shampoos and mattresses, has caused confusion and mistrust for consumers and the media, while also betraying the research being done at leading institutions around the world.
What are some of the common misconceptions or ways that Seed aims to transcend the typical conversations and product offerings in this arena?
One of the most common misconceptions around probiotics is that they must colonize our gut or alter the composition of our microbiome to have an impact. This is not true. In fact, outside of specific cases like fecal transplants, there is little evidence that probiotics “colonize.” Instead, as transient microbes, probiotics travel through your colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits. Some enhance the gene expressions involved in tight junction signaling, which help protect against intestinal permeability — this means a tight gut barrier. Others trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions for increased motility — think, better, more regular poops. Yet other bacteria produce byproducts like short-chain fatty acids, which have been extensively shown to be beneficial for metabolic and immune health.
The field of microbiome science is focused on function (what bacteria are doing) versus identity (which bacteria are present). This is the basis of our approach — looking at specific strains of beneficial bacteria that have been clinically studied and shown to have an effect in the human body, independent of your starting microbiome.
In the coming years, microbiome science will impact almost every aspect of our lives and the choices we make for our health. As research continues, we’re committed to stewarding how that research is both advanced and translated (through both products and education) to set a new standard in consumer health.
On a related note, you’ve mentioned before that you’ve felt frustrated with the “propagation of misinformation” in general within the wellness space, which can, we agree, often seem stuffed with overwhelming amounts of contradictory recommendations. How do you sift through all of the news, on the microbiome and otherwise? What/whom are some of the wellness resources you trust and turn to?
Confirmation bias has had a real effect on how we engage with information, and the resulting echo chambers and models of advertising, which reward sensationalism, make it hard to find truthful content. When it comes to health-related content — be it human or planetary — I always ask the question: what is the science and are the claims evidence-based with peer reviewed research?
Nature, Scientific American, New York Times, Massive, Nautilus and NPR are some of my staples — but I always turn to PubMed to get right to the source.
Seed has a brilliant way of marrying science and design — two arenas that are too often separated or assumed to be incompatible, as if scientific data can only be presented in a flat, dry manner, or as if what’s “nerdy” can’t also be fun and aesthetically engaging. We're assuming this was intentional from Seed's very start, but can you tell us a little more about how you approach these visual and verbal storytelling elements or what your philosophy is on the right relationship between science and design?
For us, the communication of science is as important as doing good science. But you have to meet people where they are. We understand that science can feel intimidating and complex, so we use design, art, poetry, and pop culture as trojan horses. We think about it as building doors people can walk through…and we’re just getting started.
Let’s talk about your introduction to this complicated bacterial sphere. Motherhood and entrepreneurship are crucially connected in Seed’s foundations — it was your personal breastfeeding experience that led you to learn about the microbiome in the first place. Can you share that story with us? What were some of the first resources you studied or lessons you learned that got you hooked?
After four months of breastfeeding and a lifetime of being a serious nerd about my body, I felt especially defeated when I was unable to supply all of my son’s breast milk after four months. I had done all the right things, and I knew too much. I couldn’t believe how little science informed the supplementation products available, especially given what we now know about an infant’s developing microbiome and that critical window of development.
My first resource wasn’t something you can read — it was my Co-Founder, Raja. We met when I was pregnant, and the way he communicated science, his deep expertise in translating science to products, and our shared vision to fundamentally redefine health through this new microbial lens was our inception moment.
And so Seed was born — at first, to reinvent and develop an infant formula that resembles breast milk as closely as possible, and our vision has dramatically expanded from there.
If you had to boil your personal self-care philosophy down to one sentence, what would it be?
Nurture your whole self, not just your human part — that means the 38 trillion microorganisms that work hard to keep us healthy.
Why do you think we struggle (perhaps especially as women) to implement the self-care we know we need? What are some ways you make sure to keep your personal wellness as a top priority?
Women, more than men, have to deal with something that has been referred to as the “invisible work” which takes place in the “invisible hours” — it is all the things we cannot always see but that can be incredibly consuming and therefore, prioritized ahead of self-care. And once you have children, there’s also a lot of guilt when you choose a self-care moment over time with your child—so it’s an incessant internal negotiation of time that can subvert those important choices to take care of ourselves.
My trick is that is has to go on the calendar, it has to have the same weight as a conference call or a board meeting — if it’s on the calendar, it generally happens.
How has your approach to health and self-care shifted with age?
My approach to self-care is simple — there are no successes worth having that force me to sacrifice the things that enable me in the first place (my health, my ability to create, and the wellbeing of my family).
The awareness I have of my microbiome and its profound implications for my health has also evolved my approach to self-care. I am better at prioritizing sleep, have eliminated almost all use of NSAIDs (like Advil), changed the way I internalize and process stress, switched to mild soaps, introduced a greater variety of plants to my diet, and look through this new microbial lens wherever possible, which also means paying attention to the latest research and finding resources I trust.
What’s next for you and for Seed? What are some of your big goals for the future or ways you see the company changing shape in years to come, or ways you see the bacterial conversations shifting and expanding in general?
As we work to steward the future of probiotics, we are expanding both our products and access to them. We look at areas of our health where microbes can make a substantial impact and where we believe the science is sufficient for translation and commercialization. As we build the bridge between microbiome science and consumer health, we are also cultivating a global community of curious and empowered citizen scientists inspired to think differently about their health and the planet we all call home. It’s thrilling to see people come into the awareness that they are not entirely human — that there is another half to themselves that informs who they are, how they feel, and what they do — and that this non-human half must be cared for and nurtured all the same.
But the conversation about microbes is just beginning — as microbiome science progresses, the potential is vast, not only for the fields of human health and medicine, but for our food, our homes, our cities, and as we think about finding solutions to some of our greatest environmental challenges. The microbiome is truly a new frontier.