Bringing such development to fruition “will be a four-step process,” Jäger predicts, with the first step continuing the microbiome mapping and sequencing that’s already taught us so much.
But in addition to sequencing, de Souza advocates for mechanistic studies to reveal how microbiome metabolites, for instance, might mediate important host-microbe and microbe-microbe interactions. For example, he says there’s “solid data” on the production of short-chain fatty acids in the colon that impact mineral absorption; research his company has conducted with Connie M. Weaver, a professor in the department of nutrition science at Purdue University, has found that the microbiome, in concert with a branded form of Tate & Lyle’s soluble fiber, mediates calcium absorption and bone strength. “We could use more information on the breadth of microbiome-derived natural products, the functional roles of these metabolites and corresponding host impacts, as well as the influence of diet,” he says.
After sequencing and mechanistic work, Jäger continues, we’ll still need to identify “unique features of the microbiome for specific subgroups of the population,” while also defining what’s “normal,” and how variations on that norm can still have a meaningful—though not negative—effect.
“Third,” he says, “we have to answer the chicken-or-egg question: Is a unique microbiome the reason for superior health or disease, or is it simply a byproduct of such status”—again, teasing correlation from causation. And the last step, Jäger says, answers this question: “Can we change the microbial makeup, and does this indeed have a beneficial effect on health?”
But even then, neither academia nor industry’s task will be complete. As Jäger says, “What will it take to translate our increasing knowledge of the microbiome into dietary supplements or functional foods? Clinical trials. Microbiome research allows us to pick the best-suited strains for specific target groups—but any potential benefits need to be validated in human clinical study.”
So, hurry up and wait. But as you do, explore the following areas to see lessons we’ve learned, and longer-term questions we still have to answer.
Photo © iStockphoto.com/Сергей Хакимуллин