New research from King’s College London has set out to produce a comprehensive database of the various compounds produced by the enormous array of bacteria that resides in our gut. By studying the composition of these compounds in our stool the researchers suggest an accurate picture of our gut microbiome can be generated and future treatment targets to battle conditions such as obesity and diabetes can be developed.
Most classic treatments that work by altering gut health tend to concentrate on either prebiotics or probiotics. Prebiotics are foods or compounds consumed to help support or grow specific types of gut bacteria, while probiotics are actual live microorganisms consumed to engage known health benefits. Recently a third concept has been raised by some scientists as a better way to optimize gut health: Postbiotics.
Postbiotics are the metabolic byproducts produced by the bacteria in our gut. These biochemical substances can affect a range of physiological processes in our body. Postbiotics can traced in a person’s stool and this unique biological fingerprint is called a fecal metabolome.
The new research from King’s College London began with stool samples from 500 pairs of twins. The study went on to measure levels of over 800 different biochemical compounds found in their stool and known to be produced by various gut microbes. As well as finding interesting key chemical signatures they could directly be correlated with the amount of belly fat a person had. And by utilizing twins, the researchers could also gain a compelling insight into how the make up of a person’s gut bacteria is directed by genes as opposed to environmental factors such as diet.
The results showed that less than 20 percent of our gut bacterial chemical activity could be attributed to genes, while 67.7 per cent seemed to be influenced by environmental factors. This suggests that our microbiome can be comprehensively modulated through factors such as diet.
One of the key parts of the study involves building a gut metabolome database that helps connect postbiotic compounds with specific bacteria. This will assist future researchers in better understanding how certain gut bacterial environments could generate specific health outcomes.
An interesting potential future scenario is a more postbiotic-centered treatment process where, instead of trying to alter a person’s gut microbiome, we can directly home in on the necessary chemical compound produced by a certain microbe and add it specifically to our diets.
One interesting earlier study from the team that summed up this new way of understanding postbiotics, looked at the efficacy of omega-3 supplements and why they don’t exhibit positive effects for everyone. The study found that omega-3 is a beneficial compound that produces anti-inflammatory effects in the body and some of those anti-inflammatory effects are generated when the omega-3 is consumed by certain gut bacteria to generate a compound called n-carbamyl glutamate (NCG).
Unfortunately, certain people don’t have the right population of microbes in their gut to effectively produce NCG, resulting in them receiving minimal benefits from omega-3 supplements or omega-3 foods. NCG is considered a postbiotic as it is a chemical byproduct of bacterial activity in the gut.
So where does the idea of smart toilets come in?
Well, the hypothetical future scenario posited by the researchers is that we could have smart toilets, or smart toilet paper, that can offer a snapshot of the postbiotic profile of our stool and give insights into what chemical metabolites are being effectively produced by our gut microbiome. Looking at omega-3 as an example, this would enable clinicians to better understand whether those specific supplements would be effective in a given patient and potential dietary recommendations could be instituted to help grow populations of missing bacteria.
This kind of research offers a new perspective into how we could better garner positive health effects out of the complex population of bacteria that lives in our gut. The study of postbiotics takes things one step further than simply examining gut bacteria. It suggests that instead of administering live microorganisms to try to alter our microbiome, we should consider what compounds these microbes are producing and look to them for future treatment possibilities.
The new research was published in the journal Nature Genetics.