Scientists learning that gut bacteria can affect more than just digestion

WASHINGTON — We’re often given the advice “go with your gut” when it comes to making important life decisions. But did you know the bacteria living in your gut has a lot to say about how your life turns out?

Sally Squires, writer of the Lean Plate Club™ blog, said scientists are now learning how the 10 – 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells we all harbor can influence our weight, our ability to fight off infections, how we react to medications and antibiotics and how we use the nutrition contained in the food we consume.

And most of this gut bacteria, known to scientists as the microbiome, is established early in life. From the moment a child is born, its microbiome begin to differ from its mother’s. A lot of the changes in our microbiome come from how we are fed in the first year of life: the introduction of baby formula instead of breast milk, for example, can make a difference in the bacteria we have as we grow up. Our bacteria is also influenced by when and what type of solid food our parents give us as a young child.

Even identical twins can have different microbiomes. An obese twin, for example, can have a different subset of identifiable microbial genes than a lean twin. Experiments have shown that when the genes taken from an obese mouse’s microbe are injected into a lean mouse, that mouse will become obese, too.

June 26, 2018 | Sally Squires discusses what scientists are learning about 'gut bacteria' (WTOP)

Squires said when we think of bacteria working in our bodies, it conjures up “creepy” images, but there is an important and constant interaction between the bacteria we harbor and our cells.

Generally, she said, these are “friendly” bacteria and they provide a healthy ecosystem that helps to protect us from other harmful microbes that can cause infections and other illnesses. The bacteria also plays a key role in our digestion and ability to extract nutrients from the food we eat.

The trillions of living organisms we harbor even give us something akin to a fingerprint. It turns out scientists have studied computer keyboards, and based on the bacteria we leave behind, they can determine which person used the keyboard, and even which fingers they used to type.

Squires said all of this research has a point, too. Just as scientists are plumbing the depths of the oceans and going deep into rain forests to look for ways to treat illness and disease, they are also looking at how our gut bacteria might provide keys to fighting things like autism and human frailty.

Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a digital writer for WTOP. He came to the D.C. area in 2007 to work as digital editor for, and since then has worked for a number of local and national news organizations.

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