The Little Big Microbiota

The Little Big Microbiota

By Minttu Kansikas

The microorganisms within us form our essential, yet medically underexploited, microbiota. Our understanding of the diversity and significance of the microbiota has vastly increased with the development of modern laboratory techniques to the point where it has been referred to as our microbial organ. Perhaps this is not surprising as, at the cellular level, these microorganisms out-number our own cells by a number of times.  While the microbiota stretches out to most corners of the body, the single largest niche is found in the gut.

The gut microbiota reminds us of itself when it has been disturbed. In addition to enforcing a healthy and stable gut flora, research has shifted towards exploiting it for medical therapeutics. The more we understand about the composition and functions of the microbiota, the better we can exploit it in disease prevention and treatment. A recent example of this is the prevention of the accumulation of a metabolite that has been linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. Wang et al. of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio showed that while we consume foods that result in trimethylamine entering our body, the accumulation of its cardiometabolic disease associated metabolite (trimethylamine N-oxide) can be prevented by inhibiting microbial enzymes required for the process. Similarly, microbial properties can be exploited for increased anticancer treatment efficiencies by enhancing spontaneous immune responses against tumor cells. Vétizou et al., in France, identified specific gut microbes essential for the function of a melanoma immunotherapy agent while Sivan et al. of the University of Chicago described commensal intestinal bacteria required for efficient antibody mediated tumor growth blockage.

Although a core-microbiota is thought to be shared, the individual differences in our microbiota can at least partially explain variable responses to disease treatments while enforcing an aspect of personalized therapeutics.  Similarly, our own responsibility over maintaining a healthy gut should not be undermined either, after all, loss of gut microbial diversity not only affects you but potentially also the generation to follow.


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Wang Z et al. (2015) Non-lethal Inhibition of Gut Microbial Trimethylamine Production for the Treatment of Atherosclerosis. Cell, 163:1585-95.

Vétizou et al. (2015) Anticancer immunotherapy by CTLA-4 blockade relies on the gut microbiota. Science, 350: 1079-84.

Sivan et al. (2015) Commensal Bifidobacterium promotes antitumor immunity and facilitates anti-PD-L1 efficacy. Science, 350:1079-84.

Sonnenburg et al. (2016) Diet-induced extinctions in the gut microbiota compound over generations. Nature, 529:212-5.

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