Common gut microbes may contribute to obesity

December 20, 2006

A link between obesity and the microbial communities living in our guts is suggested by new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The findings indicate that our gut microbes are biomarkers, mediators and potential therapeutic targets in the war against the worldwide obesity epidemic.

In two studies published this week in the journal Nature, the scientists report that the relative abundance of two of the most common groups of gut bacteria is altered in both obese humans and mice. By sequencing the genes present in gut microbial communities of obese and lean mice, and by observing the effects of transplanting these communities into germ-free mice, the researchers showed that the obese microbial community has an increased capacity to harvest calories from the diet.

"The amount of calories you consume by eating, and the amount of calories you expend by exercising are key determinants of your tendency to be obese or lean," says lead investigator Jeffrey Gordon, M.D., director of the Center for Genome Sciences and the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor. "Our studies imply that differences in our gut microbial ecology may determine how many calories we are able to extract and absorb from our diet and deposit in our fat cells."

That is, not every bowl of cereal may yield the same number calories for each person. People could extract slightly more or slightly less energy from a serving depending upon their collection of gut microbes. "The differences don't have to be great, but over the course of a year the effects can add up," Gordon says.

Trillions of friendly microbes reside in the intestine, where they help to digest food that the body can't on its own, such as the complex sugars found in grains, fruits and vegetables. As part of the digestive process, the microbes break down nutrients to extract calories that can be stored as fat.

The researchers focused on two major groups of bacteria - the Bacteroidetes and the Firmicutes - that together make up more than 90 percent of microbes found in the intestines of mice and humans. In an earlier study, they compared genetically obese mice and their lean littermates. The obese mice had 50 percent fewer Bacteroidetes and proportionately more Firmicutes. Moreover, the differences were not due to a bloom of one species in the Firmicutes or a diminution of a single or a few species of Bacteroidetes: virtually all members of each group were altered.

In one of this week's Nature articles, Ruth Ley, Ph.D., a microbial ecologist in Gordon's group, reports on her investigation into whether these findings also held true among obese humans. She followed 12 obese patients at a Washington University weight loss clinic over a one-year period. Half the patients were on a low-calorie, low-fat diet and half were on a low-calorie, low carbohydrate diet.

At the outset of the study, the obese patients had the same type of depletion of Bacteroidetes and relative enhancement of Firmicutes as the obese mice. As the patients lost weight, the abundance of the Bacteroidetes increased and the abundance of Firmicutes decreased, irrespective of the diet they were on. Moreover, not one particular species of Bacteroidetes but the entire group increased as patients lost weight.

In a companion paper in the same journal, Peter Turnbaugh, a Ph.D. student in Gordon's lab, compared the genes present in the gut microbial communities of the obese and lean mice using the newest generation of massively parallel DNA sequencers.

The results of these so-called comparative metagenomic studies revealed that the obese animals' microbial community genome (microbiome) had a greater capacity to digest polysaccharides, or complex carbohydrates. By transferring the gut microbial communities of obese and lean mice to mice that had been raised in a sterile environment (germ-free animals), he confirmed that the obese microbial community prompted a significantly greater gain in fat in the recipients.

Gordon notes that these findings represent steps in a long journey designed to understand the contributions of our microbial self to our health. "Our microbial cells outnumber our human cells by as much as 10 fold and, and they may contain 100 times more genes than our own human genome," Gordon says.

These studies raise a number of questions, according to Gordon. "Are some adults predisposed to obesity because they 'start out' with fewer Bacteroidetes and more Firmicutes in their guts?" he asks. "Can features of a reduced Bacteroidetes-Firmicutes enriched microbial community become part of our definition of an obese state or a diagnostic marker for an increased risk for obesity? And can we intentionally manipulate our gut microbial communities in safe and beneficial ways to regulate energy balance?"

Source: Washington University School of Medicine

Explore further: Healing intestinal diseases with a bacterial mix

Related Stories

Healing intestinal diseases with a bacterial mix

February 16, 2018
When the bacterial ecosystem in the intestine is out of balance, there often is no other remedy than a faecal microbiota transplant. Due to the risks of this procedure, researchers from the ETH spin-off PharmaBiome are developing ...

Exercise changes gut microbial composition independent of diet, team reports

December 4, 2017
Two studies - one in mice and the other in human subjects - offer the first definitive evidence that exercise alone can change the composition of microbes in the gut. The studies were designed to isolate exercise-induced ...

Straight from the gut: Microbes can cause obesity

February 5, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Obesity and chronic liver disease can be triggered by a family of proteins that alter populations of microbes in the stomach, a discovery that suggests the condition may be infectious, Yale scientists ...

Early antibiotic exposure leads to lifelong metabolic disturbances in mice

August 14, 2014
A new study published today in Cell suggests that antibiotic exposure during a critical window of early development disrupts the bacterial landscape of the gut, home to trillions of diverse microbes, and permanently reprograms ...

A gut check for PCOS-related obesity

March 8, 2016
Modifying gut bacteria could be a treatment option for some of the symptoms associated with the widespread disease polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), according to a recent study by San Diego State University researchers in ...

Jet lag can cause obesity by disrupting the daily rhythms of gut microbes

October 16, 2014
Organisms ranging from bacteria to humans have circadian clocks to help them synchronize their biological activities to the time of day. A study published by Cell Press October 16th in Cell now reveals that gut microbes in ...

Recommended for you

Spare parts from small parts: Novel scaffolds to grow muscle

February 20, 2018
Australian biomedical engineers have successfully produced a 3D material that mimics nature to transform cells into muscle.

Clues to obesity's roots found in brain's quality control process

February 20, 2018
Deep in the middle of our heads lies a tiny nub of nerve cells that play a key role in how hungry we feel, how much we eat, and how much weight we gain.

Study looks at how newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels

February 19, 2018
A new study published today found that a newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels when it senses inadequate blood flow to tissues.

Scientists produce human intestinal lining that re-creates living tissue inside organ-chip

February 16, 2018
Investigators have demonstrated how cells of a human intestinal lining created outside an individual's body mirror living tissue when placed inside microengineered Intestine-Chips, opening the door to personalized testing ...

Data wave hits health care

February 16, 2018
Technology used by Facebook, Google and Amazon to turn spoken language into text, recognize faces and target advertising could help doctors fight one of the deadliest infections in American hospitals.

Researcher explains how statistics, neuroscience improve anesthesiology

February 16, 2018
It's intuitive that anesthesia operates in the brain, but the standard protocol among anesthesiologists when monitoring and dosing patients during surgery is to rely on indirect signs of arousal like movement, and changes ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.