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Four discoveries show why your gut bacteria is so important

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Your intestine is home to tens of trillions of microbes of at least 1,000 different species. So it’s no wonder we’re just beginning to understand all the ways they affect our physiology and health.

Here are four things you might not have known about your gut bacteria, courtesy of KTH research.

  1. Babies need exposure to their mother’s gastrointestinal bacteria to prevent allergies. A 2013 study from KTH found that children born via Caesarean section run a higher risk of developing allergies due to a lack of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. In particular the babies in the study lacked the bacterial group Bacteroidetes which, according to the research team’s earlier observations, are associated with protecting against allergies.
  2. Fibre is chopped up by your gut flora. The complex carbohydrates called xyloglucans account for a quarter of the dry weight of fruits and vegetables. That’s the stuff you need in your diet, but you also depend on a class of gut bacteria called Bacteroides ovatus in order to break down these sugars, according to a study done here. Harry Brumer from the KTH School of Biotechnology says this “crucial part of our digestive toolkit” is possible because of a sequence of genes the researchers discovered, which enables Bacteroides ovatus to chop up xyloglucans. So be nice to your Bacteroides ovatus.
  1. Obesity, fatty liver disease, diabetes and other metabolism disorders are linked to gut bacteria. Gut bacteria consume an amino acid called glycine that is needed to synthesize your body’s main antioxidant, glutathione. A lack of it in your liver or colon can spell trouble. A KTH researcher found that glycine levels were lower in lab mice that didn’t have gut bacteria, suggesting that the microbiota regulate the levels of glutathione in these critical organs.
  1. Your intestine protects your brain. Obviously, your brain takes care of your gut, because you’re smart, and you read about eating healthy (and given the choice between broccoli quinoa salad and a Chicago-style stuffed sausage pizza, you know which to order, right?). But did you know that even before you were born, microbiota has been protecting a critical part of your brain? The blood-brain barrier acts like a filter to protect the brain from harmful substances; and according to tests done on lab mice, exposure to the mother’s gut bacteria is necessary to making sure it’s impermeable, according to research at KTH. And as you go on in life, this impermeability is preserved by your gut microbiota. Now you know. So, go on and enjoy that piz… I mean, broccoli!

David Callahan

David Callahan is editor for international news and media at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.