Gut bacteria need each other – and that affects our metabolism

3rd October 2019

Pile of lego bricks
Gut bacteria work together like Lego

Teamwork is key for the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut and this has a big impact on our metabolism, according to new research led by King’s College London, published today in Nature Communications.

The human gut is home to bacteria that help us digest our food, produce vitamins and perform many other tasks that influence our health.

Gut bacteria work together in groups to carry out different functions. The researchers, led by the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology, found that this teamwork is much more important and more closely linked with our metabolism than individual species of bacteria.

The researchers studied the gut bacteria, blood and stool of over a thousand twins who take part in TwinsUK. This allowed the team to run the first large study on the link between gut bacterial species, their functions and the metabolism in the gut and blood of the participants.

The team found that while unrelated people share only 43% of gut bacteria species, they still share 82% of functions carried out by groups of gut bacteria. This is because different bacterial species can contribute to the same function and so different groups can work together to can carry out similar activities.

This research therefore suggests that health treatments designed to target gut bacteria – and our metabolism – should focus on groups of gut bacteria that carry out a particular function, rather than individual bacterial species.

Senior author Dr Mario Falchi explained:

“We can think of our gut bacteria like Lego bricks – the colour of the bricks doesn’t matter as much compared with how they fit together to make something. With gut bacteria, the individual species don’t matter as much as the group working together to carry out a function.”

“This is the first large study to explore the metabolic potential of the entire gut bacteria ecosystem. Our findings underline the importance of studying groups of bacteria and their functions overall, rather than focusing on specific species. These results add to the growing body of evidence that gut bacteria are intrinsically linked with human health.”

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Visconti A, Le Roy CI, Rosa F, Rossi N, Martin TC, Mohney RP, Li W, de Rinaldis E, Bell JT, Venter JC, Nelson KE, Spector TD and Falchi M. Interplay between the human gut microbiome and host metabolism. Nature Communications (2019).

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