Balancing your gut bugs

MouseCould those so-called “bio” yogurts and milk-type drinks with Scandinavian sounding names actually do you any good? Possibly.

According to a study published in the journal Molecular Systems Biology this week, microbial flora in the gut can profoundly affect how you absorb nutritients from your food and your overall health. Jeremy Nicholson and colleagues at Imperial College London suggest that keeping a balanced gut flora may prove important to prevent some human metabolic diseases. Those active yogurts and one-day milk substitutes containing live microbes could play a role in helping you maintain the balance.

Our guts are an internal ecosystem all their own. Quite bizarrely, the microbial community living in our intestines has 100 times as many genes as the whole of the human genome. It is almost as if those living inside you outrank you yourself. However, we rely on these microbes for the normal processes of digestion and waste disposal just as much as the microbes themselves need the lining of our intestine as their stamping ground. We, and all other mammals, are not so much individuals as “superorganisms”, a collective, a symbiotic biological system.

Nicholson and his team used metabolic profiling techniques to monitor changes in bile acid composition and lipid (fatty molecule) metabolism in mice whose gut flora had been replaced by human bacterial flora. Perhaps not surprisingly, the mice showed alteration in the composition of their bile acids and circulating lipoprotein levels, and displayed symptoms such as lipid accumulation in the liver that would eventually lead to disease. Closer inspection of the mouse gut, revealed that the human gut microbes could not form a strong and stable ecosystem.

Nicholson’s findings demonstrate that gut microbes control the absorption and storage of nutrients from our food and help us harvest its energy. They also show that the wrong type of microbes can lead to disease by affecting the chemical and metabolic balance of the gut and liver.

So, should you drink those liquid bio yogurts? If you can pronounce them easily then there is probably no harm in asking for them at your healthfood store, but the message is clear: steer well away from mice.

7 thoughts on “Balancing your gut bugs”

  1. I am starting by assuming a Catholic God. Obviously not everyone begins with that assumption. I accept that.

    I believe self awareness ties into what I was saying earlier about trying to be God-like in our pursuits. Assuming a belief in a Catholic God means assuming a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent creator. Assuming a belief in a Catholic God means assuming humans were created in the image of – not an exact replica of – that God.

    A searching of self – a seeking to understand the vast complexity within and without- is an attempt at knowing God.

    To be sure, different religions have their different creation stories. The mythologies allowed for temperamental gods who were not always benevolent. Is it Buddhism where existence is born out of a mother god figure? Descartes begins with an assumption of sentience as a basis for the knowledge of existence.

    I admit it is certainly easier not to subscribe to a religion. To me religion makes life purposeful. It comforts me to know my life has meaning and is important. Without religion, there is no end game. The pursuit of knowledge is ultimately a fruitless one. I can never answer that final “why” question.

    Not everyone accepts religion. I’m okay with that. I enjoy doing chemistry within the context of religion. It makes it a little more exciting to me.

  2. Okay, it doesn’t need to be an assumption, yes the vast complexity of an enormous universe that has been around for 13.7billion years, the millions of species that have existed and no longer exist on this single tiny, unassuming planet all exist to test one’s faith. But, which faith are we talking about? What if there were a designer, who’s to say the designer still exists, or even had benevolent intentions in the first place. And if there were a designer, then are we and everything else within the universe simply part of this designer? What does the nature of our self awareness mean in that context?

  3. perhaps it’s down to chance. perhaps it’s not. you say in your mind a designer should have designed us to be autonomous and efficient. why does that need to be an assumption? Perhaps a creator wants us to know we can try to be God-like but are not, if fact, God. We’d like to think we’re in control of everything . We as scientists make all the observations we can in order to know as much as possible to feel like we have an element of control.

    But what if we aren’t in control?

    Perhaps we are made to be reliant on symbiosis as an act of humility. We can no longer take something as trivial as blinking for granted. without follicle mites blinking would be much more complicated.

    Whether or not it is down to chance, it is certainly out of our control. we can strive to learn, but absolute control will be beyond our reach for a long time.


  4. It is indeed awesome…and all the more so, because it is all down to chance. Thanks for joining in! Hopefully, other readers will feel inspired to continue the discussion…

  5. Per my instructions, I was starting a discussion. There are certainly a number of people who believe very strongly in their religions creation stories. As a Catholic and a chemist, I am almost daily torn between the juxtaposition of ID and evolution. If one allows the assumption of a creator, then one can also allow the assumption that said creator created such symbiotic networks purposefully.

    If one assumes a creator, then science is really almost a religious experience. To be sure, we are trying to be as “God-like as possible. Stretching what we know about reality, trying to discover the “whys” about our natural universe. to constantly search for the fruit of that Tree of Knowledge. Kinda cool whether one believes in religion or not.

    Regardless of how they came to exist, it is amazing that such symbiotic networks exist. That cannot be disputed. To know we work in exactly one way and in no other way could things work the same. Very awesome.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  6. I believe we acquire our gut flora in the first few weeks of life. As to the implications for the ID debate, do we really need to go down that path? It is apparent from this kind of work that mammals, including Homo sapiens, are symbiotic networks of a multitude of organisms. Did you know that every eyelash follicle bears a microscopic might that keeps the follicle clean and free of pathogens? Unless you get a stye, of course. To my mind, an intelligent designer would simply have designed us to be effective at the job we are destined for without having to add myriad organisms to our make up. And, what about parasites, where do they fit into the notion of ID? Is it all meant to be some incredibly elaborate test of faith, is that it? WHY?

  7. So at what point do humans acquire these microbes? gestation? first breast feeding?

    What implications does this have for the natural selection vs intellegent design debate?

    Very interesting post. I guess I should learn to start liking yogurt.

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