‘Our gut bacteria could guide us to cures for major diseases’

Are you lactose intolerant? Your problem is caused by a single mutation in a gene that means you can’t digest the sugar in milk – lactose.

The rest of us without the mutation can. The exciting fact is that the gene mutation affects the bacteria in your gut, your microbiome.

It favours the presence of ­Bifidobacterium which uses lactose as a source of energy. The bacteria thrive and just as well because it’s one of the “good” bacteria our microbiome needs.

Could other genes and gene ­mutations determine the composition of the microbiome?

The bacteria in the gut help digest food and produce substances essential for life that we can’t produce ourselves. Is it possible that gut bacteria may also influence our health and disease?

And would changes in our genes influence common diseases such as obesity, irritable bowl syndrome and dementia through certain bacteria in the microbiome?

Well, Bristol University researchers have found specific changes in DNA – the chains of molecules that make up our genes – will affect both the presence and numbers of particular bacteria in the gut. This Bristol study, the biggest of its kind, has identified 13 DNA changes related to changes in presence or quantity of gut bacteria.

Dr David Hughes, senior research associate, led the Bristol team, ­collaborating with Katholieke ­Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, and the Christian-Albrecht University of Kiel, Germany, to analyse data from 3,890 people from three different population studies: one in Belgium (the Flemish Gut Flora Project) and two in Germany (Food Chain Plus and PopGen). In each participant researchers ­measured millions of known DNA changes and, by sampling faeces, noted the presence and abundance of gut bacteria.

The investigations of Dr Hughes and his international colleagues could hold the key to unlocking newly discovered pathways between the genes and
gut bacteria behind some of the biggest health ­challenges of our time.

Study co-author Dr Kaitlin Wade, lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said: “The implications for our understanding of human health and our approach to medicine are potentially game-changing.”

The potential for this ground-breaking research is tying together gene patterns found in certain diseases with gut bacteria, something that’s never been countenanced before.

This could establish a pathway for treating diseases and lead to research programmes for new treatments.

And these new treatments could involve manipulating our microbiome – a really novel approach.

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