How microbes can save lives


As we face one of the fastest periods of diversity loss in our gut throughout human history, with serious ramifications for human health, we are privileged to feature guest writer Shakur Abdullah on this important topic.

Co-Founder and Director of MicroInventa, a specialist in the human gut microbiome, Shakur has over a decade of experience in Next Generation Sequencing and microbiome research, as well as working with culturing techniques ranging from Escherichia coli to Thermoplasma volcanium. Most recently, he was a research assistant and master’s laboratory instructor at Imperial College London.

Cancer, obesity, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and a host of autoimmune conditions.
What do they all have in common?

If you said the small microorganisms like bacteria that live in your gut, you’re right!

Rob Knight has a great TED talk about how microbes help shapes us, but recently the role the gut microbiome plays in medical conditions has been coming to the fore. For example, recent studies suggest that the gut bacteria alters how well cancer treatments work. Also, strong evidence suggests the gut bacteria influence obesity.

The importance of variation for gut diversity and health

We’ve been living with our bacteria since before we were gathering and hunting. Notice I give pre-eminence to “gathering” because changing the types of foods we ate was done both naturally and simply through gathering what was in season. Seasonal changes in diet improved gut diversity. What man ate played a major role and still does in a healthy gut.

Research has shown that our diet can change the diversity of our microbes. Unfortunately, our gut diversity is decreasing. Compelling evidence of our decreasing diversity comes from recent studies of modern hunter-gatherers tribes, whose guts actually experience seasonal changes depending on what they eat.

The western diet, known for high levels of fat and refined sugars, but low in fibre, is a major contributor to our decreased microbial diversity. A Nature study investigated the link between the western diet and diversity. Researchers found that not only does a poor diet reduce our diversity, but the changes can become permanent after 4 generations. With so many generations of westerners now having eaten high levels of sugar and fats this is a worrying thought. Also, consider the decrease in gut bacteria due to the antibiotics we have been taking either directly, or through our food via livestock. We face one of the fastest periods of diversity loss in our gut throughout human history.

Probiotics as a treatment option?

Lots of things can change the diversity and composition of our gut bacteria: genetics, diet, cohabitation with both people and pets, antibiotics, extended interaction with nature, and last, but not least, fecal microbiome transplant. However, although there are many documented health benefits of probiotics, there is growing evidence that they do not impact the gut composition. There is no easy fix.

Researchers might crack the code on how to use probiotics to manipulate gut diversity one day.

Currently eating a variety of real food and cutting down on processed foods is the best route to improved gut microbiome diversity. Diet can avoid the lack of diversity and the links to a wide range of negative medical conditions.

Chr Hansen, one of the largest probiotic manufacturers actually announced recently that they have 100 new candidates for next-generation probiotics. Meanwhile, at MicroInventa, we think there could be even more potential probiotics and a host of useful metabolites as well. That’s why we’re developing a system that will allow for rapid capture and development so we can take the promise of the microbiome to the next level.

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