Cafe Sci – Friends in Low Places…..Our Gut Microbes

We all harbour 100 trillion microbes in our gut, and we’re in fact more microbial than we are human. Since Metchnikoff published his theory that our gut microbes prolong life in 1907, it took a while for the area of gut microbiology to kick off. The first ‘probiotic’ was developed in the 1930s by Minoru Shirota, who isolated his own lactic acid bacteria (now ‘Yakult’), but it wasn’t until the 1970-80s that research into validating the health claims of probiotics gained visibility.IMG_6712

Now, probiotic research is now an ever increasing area of microbiology with over 15,000 papers published. On Monday evening, the man who has spent most of his career in gut microbiology research since its early days – Professor Glenn Gibson, University of Reading – gave a very entertaining talk at Reading’s Café Scientifique on Monday; the man certainly knows how to make faeces and flatulence an interesting subject matter! He discussed the wealth of benefits that prebiotics and probiotics have on our health, from bowel disease to autism. Prebiotics are non-digestible dietary ingredients that stimulate the growth of our ‘good’ lactic acid bacteria, and where a lot of Glenn’s research lies (he co-coined the term in 1997). Prebiotics include fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides and are found in foods such as bananas, garlic and asparagus and have been found to boost our beneficial microbes, which in turn have been shown to have beneficial effects on our health.

Despite the wealth of research on promising health effects exerted by pre and probiotics, such claims are not permitted to be advertised on products in Europe, which Glenn stated has held us back compared to other countries that even prescribe probiotic supplements with antibiotics, to counteract the depletory effect antibiotics have on our gut flora.

Glenn advocated the use of pro and prebiotics, saying “you will feel the same, or better”. Our helpful gut microbes are crucial for our health; they prevent the colonisation of pathogenic organisms through competitive binding and anti-microbial compound secretion, improve gut barrier function, and prime our immune system. For those with underlying illnesses, taking therapeutics that destroy gut microbes, or with known colonisation of pathogenic organisms (such as H. pylori), taking probiotics is certainly warranted.

Our gut microbes are as unique as our fingerprints, and we’re only just beginning to understand the complexity of the microbiome, making this area of research incredibly exciting. Glenn’s now looking at the effects of pre and probiotics in chemotherapy patients and looking at the link between gut flora composition and autism. Watch this space!

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