Friday, 29 July 2011

Our brilliant gut bacteria

Another short post on some pretty special research on our gastrointestinal ecosystem published in the last few days. PLoS ONE, the premier journal from the Public Library of Science, has published two articles which begin to answer some interesting questions potentially related to autism and beyond.

The first paper by Jalanka-Tuovinen and colleagues from Finland and the Netherlands, sought to try and answer a fundamental question in relation to our gut bacteria: how stable is it, and what happens to it when we present with functional symptoms such as abdominal bloating and pain. The answers (or at least the preliminary observations) suggest that (a) our gut bacterial populations are normally fairly stable, and (b) apart from when we suffer from functional bowel problems or present with illness or take antimicrobials. I have to say that I do like this paper. I like it because it suggests that in much the same way we have immunological changes when we get ill, or our normal homeostasis is somehow interrupted, our gut bacterial rulers also change.

The second paper by Peris-Bondia and colleagues from Spain suggests that although we have literally trillions of bacteria residing in our deepest, darkest recesses, (a) some are normally more active than others and that (b) we may all carry our own unique bacterial 'fingerprint'. They also reported that we still have quite a way to go in identifying quite a proportion of our gut bacteria; their estimate was that about 40% of the bacteria they tried to read belonged to 'unclassified families'.

It is hard to read these papers and not appreciate the spectacle which is our gut bacteria. Why go looking in the deepest forests of the Amazon for new species, when your average Joe or Jane walking the street, is a world within a world.