The Bacterial Balance That Keeps Us Healthy

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The thousands of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live in our gut are essential contributors to our good health. They break down toxins, manufacture some vitamins and essential amino acids, and form a barrier against invaders. A study published today in Nature shows that, at 3.3 million, microbial genes in our gut outnumber previous estimates for the whole of the human body.

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, working within the European project MetaHIT and in collaboration with colleagues at the Beijing Genomics Institute at Shenzhen, China, established a reference gene set for the human gut microbiome – a catalogue of the microbe genes present in the human gut. Their work proves that high-throughput techniques can be used to sequence environmental samples, and brings us closer to an understanding of how to maintain the microbial balance that keeps us healthy.

“Knowing which combination of genes is necessary for the right balance of microbes to thrive within our gut may allow us to use stool samples, which are non-invasive, as a measure of health,” says Peer Bork, whose group at EMBL took part in the analysis. “One day, we may even be able to treat certain health problems simply by eating a yogurt with the right bacteria in it.”

This catalogue of the microbial genes harboured by the human gut will also be useful as a reference for future studies aiming to investigate the connections between bacterial genetic make-up and particular diseases or aspects of people’s lifestyles, such as diet.

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