Gut harmony: Why the right mix of microbes is important to our health

We are not alone. Each of us is teeming with bacteria and other microbes. From the soles of our feet to the follicles on our head — and every crevice in between — trillions of microbes form specialized ecosystems collectively known as our microbiota. The microbes that live on and in us outnumber our own cells by more than ten to one.

Far from being mere freeloaders, many of our microscopic passengers are essential residents — friendly bacteria that help us to digest our food, synthesize vital nutrients such as vitamins, and keep pathogens at bay. The rapidly growing field of microbiota research is starting to generate some tantilising results, linking our microbiota to everything from our weight, to our moods and behaviour.

But how is it that our microbes influence our health? How does our own behaviour — our diet and lifestyle — change our microbial ecosystems? And could we one day start to treat illnesses by manipulating our microbial communities?

In the latest episode of Up Close I spoke with a world expert in the field of microbial ecology. Professor Rob Knight is from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the BioFrontiers Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, all at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Listen to the podcast or download the transcript here.

Speaking from the gut for immune health

B0007180 Villi from the small intestine
Villi from the small intestine (Photo credit: wellcome images)

Intestinal cells communicate with probiotic gut microbes for a healthy immune system

The human body is swarming with bacteria and other microbes that outnumber our own cells by more than ten to one. From the soles of our feet to the follicles on our head and every crevice in between, trillions of microbes form specialized ecosystems collectively known as our microbiota. Far from being mere freeloaders, many of our microbial ecosystems are comprised of essential residents – friendly bacteria called commensals. In the gut, these microbial allies help us to digest our food, synthesize vital nutrients such as vitamins, and keep pathogens at bay.

They also speak to us. By listening to the chemical chatter of our microbial lodgers, epithelial cells that line the inner surface of our gut can distinguish friend from foe.

Learning to decipher the chemical cacophony is critical to the development of a healthy immune system, and when the system breaks down, debilitating conditions like inflammatory bowel disease can take hold.

It turns out that our microbes are listening to us, just as much as we are listening to them. And according to a team of Finnish researchers, the dialogue between us and our microbes changes the way that both of us behave. Continue reading “Speaking from the gut for immune health”