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September 27, 2018
When it comes to the mysteries of human biology, the gut is a universe all its own.
Our microbiota (often called microbiomes) are host to trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes – good, bad and yet to be determined. As unique as fingerprints, our microbiota can yield insights about our overall health.
Three new microbiota studies caught our eye this week.
Early bacteria exposure may guide makeup of adult microbiome
The first bacteria introduced to an organism may affect the long-term makeup of its microbiota going forward, according to researchers at the University of Alberta. The finding foreshadows a future when science might be able to engineer the microbiota to yield better health outcomes. From the U of A’s Folio:
In the study, researchers introduced distinct microbial communities, collected one at a time, from adult mice into the gastrointestinal tracts of young, genetically identical mice. The results showed that the microbiome in the adults was more similar to the microbiome introduced first. Even using a cocktail of four different bacteria, the researchers repeatedly found that the first microbes showed the highest level of persistence and the strongest influence on how the gut microbiome developed.
If the mechanism holds true for humans, there are implications for childbirth as well as for tackling some of our costliest diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
“If we know what drives specific microbiomes in specific people, we can have a much more rational approach to potentially altering the microbiome, and developing strategies to address those diseases,” U of A microbial ecologist Jens Walter told Folio. “Having long-term persistence of microbes when they colonize in the gut early in life means that a health-promoting biome could potentially be established by introducing beneficial bacteria straight after birth.”
Oral bacteria may predict obesity
Bacteria in the mouth are part of the microbiota, and new research from Penn State shows that oral bacteria may serve as an early indicator of obesity. Bacterial diversity seems to be an important variable in the finding.
Among 226 children from central Pennsylvania, the oral microbiota of those with rapid infant weight gain – a strong risk factor for childhood obesity – was less diverse, meaning it contained fewer groups of bacteria, according to a Penn State press release. These children also had a higher ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes, two of the most common bacteria groups found in the human microbiota.
“There are usually dramatic changes to an individual’s microbiota as they develop during early childhood,” said Kateryna Makova, Pentz Professor of Biology and senior author of the paper. “Our results suggest that signatures of obesity may be established earlier in oral microbiota than in gut microbiota. If we can confirm this in other groups of children outside of Pennsylvania, we may be able to develop a test of oral microbiota that could be used in clinical care to identify children who are at risk for developing obesity. This is particularly exciting because oral samples are easier to obtain than those from the gut, which require fecal samples.”
Some gut bacteria generate electricity
UC Berkeley scientists have made what they call a “shocking” finding: Gut bacteria produce electricity. Also among electrogenic bacteria are those related to food-borne illness, gangrene and hospital infections, while others are probiotics.
“So far, electrogenic bacteria have been found in fairly specific natural environments, such as the sediments of various bodies of water,”explained Medical News Today. “These environments are typically anaerobic, meaning that they do not contain free oxygen. Now, for the very first time, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have found that hundreds of different bacteria in the human gut are also electrogenic.”
Dan Portnoy, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology and of plant and microbial biology, described the implications of the finding in the Berkeley News. “The fact that so many bugs that interact with humans, either as pathogens or in probiotics or in our microbiota or involved in fermentation of human products, are electrogenic — that had been missed before,” he said. “It could tell us a lot about how these bacteria infect us or help us have a healthy gut.” (The discovery also has implications for microbial batteries, according to Berkeley.)
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