Here’s something else to blame for those extra pounds you packed on during the holidays: Bacteria.
Not necessarily the pathogenic bacteria that cause infectious disease, but those millions and millions of microscopic organisms that aid food digestion and vitamin synthesizing in your digestive system. Researchers, including a group at Utah State University, now believe those bacteria may impact everything from weight gain to brain development to a person’s likelihood of developing asthma or autism or even cancer.
“This is one of the most fascinating areas I’ve gotten into,” says Michael Lefevre, a professor with the Utah Science Technology And Research initiative, a science and technology program connected to USU and the University of Utah. “There are jaw-dropping findings on a weekly basis.”
Last week’s revelation was the announcement of a discovery by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, that each of us plays host one of three types of bacteria systems. Like blood types, each of the three systems is distinct, but so far scientists have found no link between “bug type” and gender, age, race or health. They theorize that one possibility is that infants are randomly colonized by different pioneering species of gut microbes, which dictates which other species can follow them. Blood type and metabolism may also play a role.
While other groups dig into the implications of the various systems, Lefevre and his team of a half-dozen USU specialists in related fields are examining “how nutrition affects gut bacteria,” and, by extension, how that affects health. In other words, can controlling one’s diet regulate their bacterial system and thus their health.
Studies on mice indicate that certain types of bacteria are correlated to obesity or diabetes, and that other illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease may also be linked to bacteria types. Now the USU group is extending its research to people, inviting Cache County residents to participate in their “Gut Check” study.
“One of our missions here is to understand how variations in diet can ‘push’ the system, and what does that mean from a health perspective,” Lefevre says.
Certain bacteria help in the absorption of energy, for example, allowing more calories to be absorbed into the body. One study in mice showed that a particular plant extract reduced weight gain in mice, compared to a control group getting an identical amount of food and exercise. If that could be replicated in humans, Lefevre notes, it would add up to “about 15 to 20 pounds of fat not accumulated in a year” for a person.
“Obviously we’re interested in following this up and seeing if this is applicable to humans,” Lefevre says.
The USU group is focusing on organic chemicals called polyphenols, found in foods like blueberries and purple corn. Many of these chemicals are in plants to specifically defend against invading bacteria,” Lefevre’s research team works in the state of the art USTAR Bioinnovations Building in North Logan, which includes a clinic with examination rooms for drawing blood (and freezers that store those samples at minus-80 degrees Celsius) and a kitchen/dining area that can serve 50 people a day.
Lefevre says scientists have spent the last five years developing analytical tools in the relatively new field of study, and are now taking on the challenge of “how to measure these things and what to do about them.” The study of bacteria shows such promise, he believes, that instead of scouring the rain forests for new medicines, scientists would be better off studying our own gut bacteria.
“That’s where you should look for the next generation of drugs,” he says.
“Our bacteria have co-evolved with us,” he says. “As a result, they have adapted to our physiology, so it’s not inconceivable to think they exert an impact on our behavior, in part for their own survival.”
Join the project
Cache County residents between the ages of 18 and 85 are invited to join the “Gut Check” study at the USTAR Bioinnovations Building in North Logan. Participants are asked to monitor their food intake for three days and provide blood and stool samples. In return they receive free bloodwork analysis, a free dietary analysis and a small stipend. Those interested in participating may email the Applied Nutrition Research Team at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Study Coordinator, Janet Bergeson at 435-797-8262.