Are Gut Bacteria Endangered Species? The Modern Microbiome

Thinking of giving the Paleo diet a try? You may want to reconsider that thought. That’s because several new bodies of research suggest our gut microbes, or the microbiome, may not be up for the diet. In fact, our guts may not be handling any food very well these days.

According to NPR, the studies revealed that “Western diets and modern-day hygiene have wiped a few dozen species right out of our digestive tracts. One missing microbe helps metabolize carbohydrates. Other bygone bacteria act as prebiotics. And another communicates with our immune system.”

Why is this an issue? Because, the researchers concluded, we’ve lost a huge number of bacteria that have historically helped us with digestion, “Americans' digestive tracts look like barren deserts compared with the lush, tropical rain forest found inside indigenous people,” NPR explains.

"The concern is that we're losing keystone species," microbiologist M. Gloria Dominguez-Bello, at the New York University School of Medicine told NPR. "That's a hypothesis, but we haven't proved it." 

Dominguez-Bello and her team flew down to visit with a remote tribe in Venezuela, the Yanomami tribe, which traces back more than 11,000 years in that region on the border of Brazil. The researchers took samples of the tribe’s fecal matter to look specifically at digestive bacteria. Using DNA analysis, the researchers were able to uncover a rich world of microflora—about 50 percent more strains of bacteria and biodiversity than what’s found in most Americans. 

While you might expect that from people who live in a forest environment without access to bleach, there’s more to it than just set and setting. According to Dominguez-Bello, our modern loss of bacteria in the digestive tract may correlate with increases in illnesses ranging from allergies and autoimmune disorders to multiple sclerosis.

"So the big question is: Are these two facts related?" Dominguez-Bello asked. "It's not clear if more diversity in the microbiome is healthier. But maybe we have lost species with important functions," she told NPR.

And it’s not just diet choices that dictate microbiome health. The Yanomami tribe certainly isn’t ordering Pizza Hut or eating Pop Tarts for breakfast. But they’re not being exposed to antibiotics either (some members of the tribe have been treated since the 2009 visit).

"Antibiotics kill bacteria in the gut, and sometimes species don't come back," Dominguez-Bello told NPR, "This is especially true with children, whose microbiomes are in the process of getting assembled. Impacts on the microbiome at a young age can have long-lasting consequences."

The other study, led by Jens Walter, a microbiologist at the University of Alberta, points to another culprit though: clean drinking water. An achievement of tremendous value, our sanitized water may actually be preventing the transfer of healthy bacteria between individuals, one common way it spreads.

In Walter’s research on Papua New Guineans, the tribe had 47 more species of bacteria “that are essentially absent in the Americans they studied,” NPR explains. “The Americans, on the other hand, had only four species in their microbiome that were missing in the Papua New Guineans.”

Image via: ibm4381

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