W

hile many of us think of mucus as mere tissue fillers, Katharina Ribbeck views it differently.

“Mucus really is the unsung hero that has been taming problematic pathogens for millions of years,” said Ribbeck, an associate professor in the department of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It really is the battleground location of our microbial interactions.”

Her lab is trying to unravel the mysteries of mucus. Her group studies mucus from all over the body — from the mouth, to the stomach and intestines, down to the cervix. The goal is to understand how it hosts millions of beneficial and pathogenic bacteria. The group would also like to figure out how to harness the gooey gel to prevent infections, especially those caused by bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

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“Imagine, we could step out of the [antibiotic] arms race, and instead form an alliance with these problematic microbes,” Ribbeck said. “Imagine we learn how to domesticate them, and we give them a safe place to live and food — in return, these bugs agree to protect our health.”

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Studying mucus could also improve how drugs are delivered and pave the way for personalized treatments. That’s because mucus acts as the gatekeeper in our bodies. It lets some molecules and microbes pass, while stopping others from getting through.

“I think we need a more detailed understanding of its barrier mechanisms, if we want to optimize drug delivery and really give individuals drugs that work for their particular mucus,” Ribbeck said.

Apart from her research, Ribbeck is committed to spreading the good word of mucus to the public. She created a TED-Ed video, gives talks, and her lab hosts workshops at Boston’s Museum of Science to educate kids on the magical properties of mucus.

She is also working with an illustrator and creating a series of children’s books that feature mucus as a shape-shifting superhero.

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  • Mucus is my enemy. I have a disease called non-CF bronchiectasis. My airways are enlarged for unknown reasons, cilia is lazy also and I am unable to clear mucus as it is produced. It dries and plugs my airways. There are exercises and devices to loosen and remove these plugs, but the body reacts to the irritation these plugs cause by…. producing more mucus. Great. This is a horrific battle in the mornings. I also have to drink copious amounts of water to keep it thinned out. I’ve discovered a supplement called NAC that is given to help with mucus production and aids in breaking this stuff up. Makes me feel semi normal and I can do things like go to the movies.

  • There is nothing naturally occurring in our bodies that isn’t necessary or is just a nuisance. It is our hubris that prevents us from appreciating the complexity and interconnectedness of all the parts. If mucous weren’t essential, evolution would have removed it.

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