Creative Minds: The Human Gut Microbiome’s Top 100 Hits

Michael Fischbach

Michael Fischbach

Microbes that live in dirt often engage in their own deadly turf wars, producing a toxic mix of chemical compounds (also called “small molecules”) that can be a source of new antibiotics. When he started out in science more than a decade ago, Michael Fischbach studied these soil-dwelling microbes to look for genes involved in making these compounds.

Eventually, Fischbach, who is now at the University of California, San Francisco, came to a career-altering realization: maybe he didn’t need to dig in dirt! He hypothesized an even better way to improve human health might be found in the genes of the trillions of microorganisms that dwell in and on our bodies, known collectively as the human microbiome.

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Mouse Study Finds Microbe Might Protect against Food Poisoning

T mu in a mouse colon

Caption: Scanning electron microscopy image of T. mu in the mouse colon.
Credit: Aleksey Chudnovskiy and Miriam Merad, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Recently, we humans have started to pay a lot more attention to the legions of bacteria that live on and in our bodies because of research that’s shown us the many important roles they play in everything from how we efficiently metabolize food to how well we fend off disease. And, as it turns out, bacteria may not be the only interior bugs with the power to influence our biology positively—a new study suggests that an entirely different kingdom of primarily single-celled microbes, called protists, may be in on the act.

In a study published in the journal Cell, an NIH-funded research team reports that it has identified a new protozoan, called Tritrichomonas musculis (T. mu), living inside the gut of laboratory mice. That sounds bad—but actually this little wriggler was potentially providing a positive benefit to the mice. Not only did T. mu appear to boost the animals’ immune systems, it spared them from the severe intestinal infection that typically occurs after eating food contaminated with toxic Salmonella bacteria. While it’s not yet clear if protists exist that can produce similar beneficial effects in humans, there is evidence that a close relative of T. mu frequently resides in the intestines of people around the world.

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Creative Minds: New Piece in the Crohn’s Disease Puzzle?

Gwendalyn Randolph

Gwendalyn Randolph

Back in the early 1930s, Burrill Crohn, a gastroenterologist in New York, decided to examine intestinal tissue biopsies from some of his patients who were suffering from severe bowel problems. It turns out that 14 showed signs of severe inflammation and structural damage in the lower part of the small intestine. As Crohn later wrote a medical colleague, “I have discovered, I believe, a new intestinal disease …” [1]

More than eight decades later, the precise cause of this disorder, which is now called Crohn’s disease, remains a mystery. Researchers have uncovered numerous genes, microbes, immunologic abnormalities, and other factors that likely contribute to the condition, estimated to affect hundreds of thousands of Americans and many more worldwide [2]. But none of these discoveries alone appears sufficient to trigger the uncontrolled inflammation and pathology of Crohn’s disease.

Other critical pieces of the Crohn’s puzzle remain to be found, and Gwendalyn Randolph thinks she might have her eyes on one of them. Randolph, an immunologist at Washington University, St. Louis, suspects that Crohn’s disease and other related conditions, collectively called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), stems from changes in vessels that carry nutrients, immune cells, and possibly microbial components away from the intestinal wall. To pursue this promising lead, Rudolph has received a 2015 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.

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Manipulating Microbes: New Toolbox for Better Health?

Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron

Caption: Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron (white) living on mammalian cells in the gut (large pink cells coated in microvilli) and being activated by exogenously added compounds (small green dots) to express specific genes, such as those encoding light-generating luciferase proteins (glowing bacteria).
Credit: Janet Iwasa, Broad Visualization Group, MIT Media Lab

When you think about the cells that make up your body, you probably think about the cells in your skin, blood, heart, and other tissues and organs. But the one-celled microbes that live in and on the human body actually outnumber your own cells by a factor of about 10 to 1. Such microbes are especially abundant in the human gut, where some of them play essential roles in digestion, metabolism, immunity, and maybe even your mood and mental health. You are not just an organism. You are a superorganism!

Now imagine for a moment if the microbes that live inside our guts could be engineered to keep tabs on our health, sounding the alarm if something goes wrong and perhaps even acting to fix the problem. Though that may sound like science fiction, an NIH-funded team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, is already working to realize this goal. Most recently, they’ve developed a toolbox of genetic parts that make it possible to program precisely one of the most common bacteria found in the human gut—an achievement that provides a foundation for engineering our collection of microbes, or microbiome, in ways that may treat or prevent disease.

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Who Knew? Gut Bacteria Contribute to Malnutrition

Photo of an African girl with thin limbs and a distended abdomen.

A child suffering from kwashiorkor.
Source: CDC/Phil

Here’s a surprising result from a new NIH-funded study: a poor diet isn’t the only cause of severe malnutrition. It seems that a ‘bad’ assortment of microbes in the intestine can conspire with a nutrient poor diet to promote and perpetuate malnutrition [1].

Most of us don’t spend time thinking about it, but healthy humans harbor about 100 trillion bacteria in our intestines and trillions more in our nose, mouth, skin, and urogenital tracts. And though your initial reaction might be “yuck,” the presence of these microbes is generally a good thing. We’ve evolved with this bacterial community because they provide services—from food digestion to bolstering the immune response—and we give them food and shelter. We call these bacterial sidekicks our ‘microbiome,’ and the latest research, much of it NIH-funded, reveals that these life passengers are critical for good health. You read that right—we need bacteria. The trouble starts when the wrong ones take up residence in our body, or the bacterial demographics shift. Then diseases from eczema and obesity to asthma and heart disease may result. Indeed, we’ve learned that microbes even modulate our sex hormones and influence the risk of autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes. [2] Continue reading