Using the gut microbiome to improve health

Patients in a hospital in the Philippines after an outbreak of the intestinal illness cholera.
Patients in a hospital in the Philippines after an outbreak of the intestinal illness cholera.
(Jeoffrey Maitem / AFP/Getty Images)

Scientists analyzing the gut microbiome have found groups of bacteria that are either abundant or nearly absent – a finding that could aid in coming up with ways to intervene to improve a person’s health.

Though there is gradual variation in the abundance of much of gut bacteria, the scientists said in this week’s issue of the journal Nature Communications, specific bacterial groups exist in stable configurations that are associated with a person’s physiology and health.

The findings, they wrote, “will be instrumental in providing insight on the variation, regulation and health implications of the intestinal microbiota.”


And targeting specific parts of the microbiome should provide promising ways to diagnose and treat people, said the study authors, led by Leo Lahti of the University of Helsinki in Finland.

There’s still a great deal to learn about how the microbiome varies from person to person, said Joseph F. Petrosino, director of the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine. He was not involved in the study.

But what the researchers found, he said, is “provocative information about the potential to use these as signatures to take a quick look at your microbiome and perhaps intervene to affect health.”

“I do think it is an excellent example of microbiome analyses aimed at identifying keystone organisms whose fluctuations and abundances may be reflective of specific states of health or disease predisposition,” Petrosino added in an email.

The researchers analyzed the intestinal microbes of 1,006 adults from Western countries.

The “bistable” groups, the authors wrote, represent “tipping elements,” or components of the gut microbes that “exhibit alternative stable states linked to the overall ecosystem state and our physiology.” At the center, there’s an unstable region. The groups can indicate the state of the gut, and it’s possible, the authors wrote, that resetting them could be a new way to deal with some of the health issues associated with the gut microbiome, including obesity.

The scientists analyzed 130 bacterial groups and found several that show strongly as either in abundance or nearly absent. They found some associations between the states of the bacteria and conditions such as gender, weight and age.


Short-term dietary interventions did not affect the bacteria distributions, but the authors said that targeted dietary interventions could be used to manipulate the states of the bacteria. They said additional research was needed in that area.

The authors noted that the mechanisms controlling the gut microbe system remain little understood. Their work was an effort to try to shed light on them.

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