Gut bacteria vary like hair or eye colour26th April 2011
The gut bacteria found in individuals is as much of a distinguishing trait as hair or eye colour, according to a recent German study.
The researchers believe that there are three basic types of microbial configurations in people's intestines, all of which contribute to the way people's bodies make vitamins and metabolise drugs.
Study co-author Manimozhiyan Arumugam, a research scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, said that his team had reasons to believe that gut bacteria were not specific to any continent, country, or ethnic group.
He said that the human intestine usually held somewhere between 500 and 1,000 different bacterial strains, all simultaneously holding each other in balance and adapting to what people ate.
For the study, the researchers sampled 22 people's stool and extracted the DNA found within.
First, 22 of the study subjects were from European countries such as Denmark, France, and Italy, 13 were from Japan, and 2 were from the US.
The researchers then broadened their data set to include 85 Danish people and about 150 more people from the US.
The researchers found that the microbial ecosystems of all the people they studied could be grouped into three broad categories.
A bacterium known as Bacteroides plays at least some role in most people's digestive systems, but can also cause abcesses or other infections.
Some people had exceptionally high levels of Bacteroides, while others had high levels of Prevotella.
Prevotella levels are also very high in the digestive systems of cattle and sheep, and they are also responsible for periodontal infections.
The third category had high levels of Ruminococcus, but lower levels of the other two.
Most of the people who took part in the recent study belonged to the third category.
Ruminococcus helps the stomach to break down cellulose.
Arumugam said that he did not know if there were only three categories, and that he also did not know whether or not the three categories could yield still more categories.
Justin Sonnenburg, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine, said that more and more health professionals were realising that people's microbial makeup contributed to the progression of diseases in human beings.
He said he believed that the new research represented a significant breakthrough, and that doctors should be able to refine their understanding of how to treat patients, based on microbial typology.
Further study is still needed to understand exactly how these microbial types influence human health.
Though there were no correlations between gut typology and ethnic identity, Arumugam said that there did seem to be certain correlations between gut bacteria and age, gender, and body weight.
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