Gut Microbiota: a rapidly moving field
As nutrigenomics leads the way in truly personalised nutrition, Sarah Power investigates whether the study of microbes in our gut could follow in its footsteps.
Certain foods affect each of us differently. As science and technology evolve, it is becoming easier to study the effects of both heredity and genetic makeup on diet, nutrition, and health.
The aim of personalised nutrition is to take this information and use it to tailor the dietary requirements of an individual to make them healthier and prevent long-term conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Commercial nutrigenetics companies are already offering this service and will analyse DNA samples, study gene variants, and offer personalised lifestyle advice. Scientists and researchers are also looking to take this a step further by studying the microbe population that lives in our intestine.
Gut microbiota refers to the tens of trillions of microorganisms that live in our intestine. It is comprised of more than 1,000 different species of bacteria and three million genes. These microbes help the body digest food, contribute to the production of vitamins B and K, and play an important part in our immune system. A balanced but diverse microbiota ensures good digestive function and our diet has a huge impact on this.
One third of our gut microbiota is common to everyone but the rest is unique to each person, and it is because of this that our gut microbes could be sampled, sequenced, and used as a tool in nutrition and diagnostics.
The Personalised Nutrition Project is run by researchers in Israel and is studying the effect certain food has on different people. For example, one person may experience a spike in blood glucose levels when they eat bread, but this may not happen to someone else. The project has discovered that the different microbiota in our gut has a huge impact on how we react to food.
The team found that by using their data and a computer algorithm they could predict how certain people would react to different meals. This means in the future it could be possible to study the gut microbiota of an individual and tailor their diet to meet their exact, personal needs.
The diet industry currently offers a blanket approach where everyone is told that the latest no-carb, no-sugar, and no-wheat diet will make them skinnier and healthier. But research by concepts such as The Personalised Nutrition Project is suggesting there is a better way.
Senior lecturer at the Rowett Institute of The University of Aberdeen Dr Alan Walker specialises in gut microbiology and his research focuses on the relationship between host diet and gut microbiota. He says: “One of the potential drawbacks of things like ‘low-carb’ diets is that these can also mean stripping things like fibre and resistant starches out of the diet, and these are the very substrates that many of our gut microbes require in order to grow and produce beneficial products for our health”.
Current trends in personal nutrition, such as apps and wearable technology, is a sign that the consumer has grown tired of these sweeping and ever-changing statements regarding what constitutes a healthy diet. If it is possible to test gut microbiota and tell someone exactly which food is making them feel unwell or causing them to put on weight, the service is likely to be in extremely high-demand.
It is also thought that as research into gut microbiota improves it may become possible to associate the presence of certain microbes with a particular disease. This would make the study of microbiota a powerful tool in the diagnosis and eventually prevention of long-term illnesses.
The future of personalised nutrition looks promising. With improvements in technology and scientific research, it will offer increasingly tailored dietary advice.
Today, it is already possible to have your gut microbiota privately tested and sequenced, however Walker does not believe there is enough information yet to make this kind of test useful in personal nutrition. He said: “At the moment, I would be more inclined to use them if I were curious about what microbes are present in my gut, rather than for diagnostic purposes".
There is still a great deal of testing and researching to be done and that is something that will require money and skilled scientists. Walker added: “We still have lots to learn about the microbiota and it is very difficult at the moment to ascribe the presence of a particular microbe with health or disease”.
Although private companies are offering to test the public’s gut microbiota, there is also a great deal of inconsistency among testing procedures. Walker said: “There is a lack of reproducibility between providers and little consensus as to which DNA sequencing protocol is best for achieving the most accurate gut microbiota.”
It may already be possible to have your gut microbes tested in the name of personal nutrition, but it looks as if it may be a while before this information is truly reliable and can be used to offer dietary and health guidance.
Despite this, Walker says: “The field of microbiota research is moving very rapidly”. It seems that further research, and improved profiling and sequencing is necessary, but for now the study of gut microbiota is a promising new solution that has the potential to revolutionise our preconceived notions of what is good and bad for us and allow our diets to be as unique as our gut microbes.