The Starring Role of...Bacteria?

 

 

Today medical researchers are increasingly focused on the significance of ‘commensal’ (think ‘cooperative’) bacteria in our intestines, and how imbalances or deficiencies in these beneficial gut microorganisms relate to common illnesses such as Type I and II Diabetes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and obesity.¹  While their research has produced some amazing findings, important questions remain unanswered.

Consider this: It is estimated that there are ten times the number of bacteria inhabiting our gut as there are ‘mammalian’ cells found in the bones, tissues and fluids of our bodies.  As abundant as stars in the firmament, these microbes number in the tens to hundreds of trillions.  Their species are known to number in the tens of thousands, 99% of which are classed in four major phyla. 

But here’s the problem:  While researchers have proven that specific imbalances in gut bacteria, i.e. overpopulation or deficiencies of one or more of the major types, do correlate with many illnesses, and are not nearly as likely to be found in healthy people, they have not yet demonstrated that a given imbalance is what produced the illness.  It might even be the other way around - that the associated illness produced the depopulation or proliferation of gut bacteria.²

In other words, DNA sequencing has provided science with the tools to categorize and estimate the varieties and populations of different bacteria in our gut, but not the answer to how imbalances in gut bacteria can and do occur.  Is diet a factor?  Indications are ‘yes’ in some, but not all, cases.  Are some people genetically predisposed to deficiencies?  Again, yes in some cases.  Have other pathogens – ‘bad’ bacteria – crowded out, or defeated, one or more of the good types?  Also a possibility.  And let’s not forget to mention other illnesses – even stress, and its byproducts – as potential malefactors in the gut.

Scientists are working hard to answer these and other questions about the gut biome.  But like the nature of the cosmos, mysteries abound.

 

¹https://www.pnas.org/content/105/43/16413

²https://sfamjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1751-7915.13479

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