Did you know up to 50 per cent of the cells in our bodies are made up of microbes that are not our own? That’s 100 trillion microbes frolicking around inside us. Crazy right?
Together, these invisible microbes make up a system we call the human microbiome. Each part of our body has its own microbiome that can interact with each other. We often think of microbes as disease-causing germs, but many of them are actually good for us. So how can we put them to work to improve our health?
Well, that’s exactly what we’re working on. We're harnessing the long-term benefits of the microbes living all throughout our bodies.
In our work called the hungry microbiome, we showed that foods containing a type of fibre called resistant starch enter our gut and feed the bacteria that live there. The bacteria then produce chemicals called metabolites, for example butyrate, which benefit our gut health. And by eating certain foods that are good for our gut microbiome (called prebiotic foods) we can improve the health of other parts of our body as well. An unhappy gut microbiome can lead to a range of health challenges. These include asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and other conditions.
Little bugs in little tummies
People of all ages can benefit from a healthy gut microbiome. However, establishing one early in life has great potential for positive long-term health benefits.
There is a window of opportunity to shape our gut microbiome when we first start on solid foods during weaning. This is when we can gain the maximum benefit from an ideal happy gut microbiome.
We hope to show that introducing prebiotic foods with a diverse range of dietary fibre to babies early will help create populations of beneficial microbes in the gut. Ones that will produce metabolites for life-long positive health outcomes. This research aims to give parents and health providers an eating plan or dietary strategy for shaping an ideal happy gut microbiome during the weaning period.
Can we predict and prevent an unhappy gut?
We know that keeping our gut microbiome happy benefits our health. However stressors such as poor diet, inactivity, alcohol, lack of sleep and antibiotics can upset its balance. So how do these stressors work on our body? How long does it take to recover? And how can we limit the harmful side effects if we have to take antibiotics?
To answer these questions, we're developing a model that will predict the resilience of the gut microbiome.
Here we define resilience as the ability to resist changes and recover from changes caused by stressors. We’ll test four broad-spectrum antibiotics, commercially available prebiotics and probiotics, as well as other foods or ingredients thought to benefit the gut microbiome and its resilience. We hope this model will help medical professionals predict and prevent the impacts of stress on the human gut.
You better work: Modelling your gut
How do you experiment on a living human gut? This is challenging, particularly for the person involved! And studying poo samples can only tell you so much.
So, we’re creating a gut simulator out of intestinal tissue that we call the “mini gut” to better understand the functional role of different types of gut bacteria.
We're also developing computer models to simulate the dynamic physical environment of the human gut. These models will study the action of chewing and the movement of food throughout the digestive tract into its mixing with our stomach juices and enzymes. We'll use these models to study the interaction between food and bacterial communities, with the aim of creating more realistic experiments with greater accuracy.
These models will allow researchers to perform highly-detailed experiments without the need for invasive procedures on humans. We hope it’ll help reveal more of the foods that benefit our gut bacteria and health, as well as give us more insights into health conditions and disease.
So what can you do right now to help make your microbiome happy? Eat fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and avoid the stressors mentioned above.
Cheers to a happy gut microbiome!
Stay tuned for the results of this important research.