The word microbiome is becoming more common to hear and may play a bigger role than you think when it comes to your health. New research from scientists at the University of Alberta explore the idea of if the first bacteria introduced into the gut will have a lasting impact and may determine how susceptible one may be to ward off serious chronic diseases.
The findings by UofA microbial ecologist Jens Walter and his colleagues suggest differences in our microbial makeup likely depend on when we acquire our first microorganisms after birth—and the order they arrive in our gut.
The discovery presents an interesting topic of discussion on how these microbiomes—which are as personal as fingerprints—establish themselves and what drives their unique nature. That’s key to figuring out how to change our microbiomes for the better, says Walter.
“Each of us harbours a microbiome that is vastly distinct, even for identical twins. Microbiomes are important for our health, but they appear to be shaped by many unknown factors, so it’s hugely important to understand why we are all different,” he adds.
Studies have already shown that a person’s genetics, diet, environment, lifestyle and physiological state all make small contributions to the variation of the gut microbiome. But those factors account for less than 30 per cent of the variation.
In the study, researchers introduced distinct microbial communities, collected one at a time, from adult mice into the gastrointestinal tracts of young, genetically identical mice. The results showed that the microbiome in the adults was more like the microbiome introduced first. Even when using a cocktail of four distinct types of bacteria, the researchers repeatedly found that the first microbes showed the highest level of persistence and the strongest influence on how the gut microbiome developed.
The discovery about timing brings scientists one step closer to understanding how microbiomes might become disrupted—for example, through caesarean section birth or antibiotic use—which is then more likely to predispose us to chronic diseases, and how to potentially address that.
Poor gut health has been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, neurological disorders, autism and allergies.
“If we know what drives specific microbiomes in specific people, we can have a much more rational approach to potentially altering the microbiome, and developing strategies to address those diseases,” says Walter. “Having long-term persistence of microbes when they colonize in the gut early in life means that a health-promoting biome could potentially be established by introducing beneficial bacteria straight after birth.”
There are such methods out there—such as some baby formulas spruced up with probiotics—but knowing more about how probiotics affect other members of the gut’s microbial community could bump it up another notch.
“We could be a lot more systematic,” states Walter. “I think in 30 or 40 years we’ll be able to colonize infants with specific bacteria we know are health-promoting and shape the microbiome in a beneficial way.”