Bugs as drugs: Harnessing novel gut bacteria for human health

May 4, 2016

Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute have grown and catalogued more than 130 bacteria from the human intestine according to a study published in Nature today.

The researchers have developed a process to grow the majority of from the , which will enable scientists to understand how our bacterial 'microbiome' helps keep us healthy. Imbalances in our can contribute to complex conditions and diseases such as obesity, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and allergies. This research will allow scientists to start to create tailor-made treatments with specific .

Research in this field has expanded greatly in recent years with the intestinal microbiome being termed a 'forgotten organ', such is its importance to human health. Approximately 2 per cent of a person's body weight is due to bacteria. Many of these bacteria are sensitive to oxygen and are difficult to culture in the laboratory, so until now it has been extremely difficult to isolate and study them.

Hilary Browne, based in the Host-Microbiota Interactions Laboratory, at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, explains: "It has become increasingly evident that microbial communities play a large role in human health and disease. By developing a new process to isolate gastrointestinal bacteria, we were able to sequence their genomes to understand more about their biology. We can also store them for long periods of time making them available for further research."

Antibiotics wipe out our —killing both the pathogen targets and the beneficial bacteria too. There is then the potential for less desirable bacteria, such as those with antibiotic resistance, to repopulate the gut faster than the beneficial bacteria, leading to further health issues, such as Clostridium difficile infection.

Current treatment for C. difficile infection can involve transplants of faeces from healthy people, to repopulate the gut. However this treatment is far from ideal. Using the library of new bacteria, Dr Trevor Lawley and his team at the Sanger Institute are hoping to create a pill, containing a rationally selected, defined mix of bacteria, which could be taken by patients and replace faecal transplants.

Dr Sam Forster from the Sanger Institute and Hudson Institute of Medical Research in Australia said: "The extensive database of genomes we have generated from these bacteria is also essential for studying which bacteria are present or absent in people with gastrointestinal conditions. Now we can start to design mixtures of therapeutics candidates for use in these diseases."

For the first time, the researchers also looked at the proportion of bacteria that form spores within the gut. Spores are a form of bacterial hibernation allowing some bacteria to remain dormant for long periods of time. They found approximately one third of the gut microbiota from a healthy person produced spores that allow bacteria to survive in the open air and potentially move between people. This provides a means of microbiota transmission that has not been considered before and could imply that health and certain diseases could be passed, not just through human genetics, but also via the microbiome.

Dr Trevor Lawley, group leader at the Sanger Institute said: "Being able to cast light on this microbial 'Dark matter' has implications for the whole of biology and how we consider health. We will be able to isolate the microbes from people with a specific disease, such as infection, cancers or autoimmune diseases, and study these microbes in a mouse model to see what happens. Studying our 'second' genome, that of the microbiota, will lead to a huge increase in our understanding of basic biology and the relationship between our gut bacteria and health and disease."

Explore further: Microbial cooperation in the intestine

More information: Hilary P. Browne et al, Culturing of 'unculturable' human microbiota reveals novel taxa and extensive sporulation, Nature (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nature17645

Samuel C. Forster et al. HPMCD: the database of human microbial communities from metagenomic datasets and microbial reference genomes, Nucleic Acids Research (2016). DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkv1216

Related Stories

Microbial cooperation in the intestine

April 25, 2016
The human intestine is home to a dense and diverse ecosystem of microbes, but little is known about how the abundant bacteria in our gut interact with each other. In a new study published in Nature this week, Brigham and ...

Probiotics protect mice from estrogen deficiency-related bone loss

April 25, 2016
After menopause, a decline in estrogen levels is linked to increases in inflammation that can cause osteoporosis. Intestinal bacteria have been shown to influence inflammation by modulating immune responses, and a new study ...

Research explains how we live in harmony with friendly gut bacteria

January 9, 2015
Stability in the composition of the hundred trillion bacterial cells in the human gastrointestinal tract is crucial to health, but scientists have been perplexed how our microbiota withstands an onslaught of toxins, dietary ...

Scientist developing probiotic mixes to treat intestinal infections

January 13, 2016
Antibiotics that fight infection can adversely affect the digestive tract and give destructive bacteria a chance to flourish, said assistant professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences Joy Scaria. His research seeks to ...

Antibiotics pave way for C. diff infections by killing bile acid-altering bacteria

January 6, 2016
New research from North Carolina State University and the University of Michigan finds that bile acids which are altered by bacteria normally living in the large intestine inhibit the growth of Clostridium difficile, or C. ...

Recommended for you

Link between cells associated with aging and bone loss

August 21, 2017
Mayo Clinic researchers have reported a causal link between senescent cells - the cells associated with aging and age-related disease - and bone loss in mice. Targeting these cells led to an increase in bone mass and strength. ...

Gut microbes may talk to the brain through cortisol

August 21, 2017
Gut microbes have been in the news a lot lately. Recent studies show they can influence human health, behavior, and certain neurological disorders, such as autism. But just how do they communicate with the brain? Results ...

Are stem cells the link between bacteria and cancer?

August 17, 2017
Gastric carcinoma is one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths, primarily because most patients present at an advanced stage of the disease. The main cause of this cancer is the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, ...

Two-step process leads to cell immortalization and cancer

August 17, 2017
A mutation that helps make cells immortal is critical to the development of a tumor, but new research at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that becoming immortal is a more complicated process than originally ...

New Pathology Atlas maps genes in cancer to accelerate progress in personalized medicine

August 17, 2017
A new Pathology Atlas is launched today with an analysis of all human genes in all major cancers showing the consequence of their corresponding protein levels for overall patient survival. The difference in expression patterns ...

Female mouse embryos actively remove male reproductive systems

August 17, 2017
A protein called COUP-TFII determines whether a mouse embryo develops a male reproductive tract, according to researchers at the National Institutes of Health and their colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. The ...

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.