A Brave New Microbial World

May 26, 2008
Nutritional Outlook Staff

Microbes thrive in nearly every environment on earth. In the human body alone, trillions of microorganisms exert both beneficial and harmful effects on human health. Probiotics, for instance, hold great potential in the fields of nutrition and medicine. Yet despite the importance of the microbial world, scientists know relatively little about it or its impact on human life.

According to a new report by the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM; Washington, DC), microbes could completely transform industry, agriculture, and medicine. One of the authors of the report, University of Washington (Seattle) professor of microbiology Caroline Harwood, PhD, says that as the planet's population grows, the need for microorganisms to sustain life will grow as well. "The stakes are high," she said when the report was released in February. "We need to accelerate the pace of discovery."

The AAM report offers several recommendations. Key proposals in the report include: developing methods to simulate the natural habitats of microbes; examining the contributions of mixed communities of microbes; and designing tools to take accurate measurements at microscopic levels.

"Technological advances have spurred every great leap in microbial biology, and in order to move forward, new methods for revealing the activities of microorganisms must be continually developed," according to the report. "Today, researchers need access to better techniques for enriching and isolating novel microorganisms, particularly approaches that enable them to mimic low-nutrient conditions to which many environmental microbes are adapted."

NIH Steps In

Probiotics Linked to Increased Mortality in Pancreatitis Patients

 

Probiotics may be dangerous to people suffering from acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that can be exacerbated by infectious complications.

Although probiotics are often thought to reduce the risk of infection by regulating bacterial growth and strengthening the immune system, researchers from the University Medical Center (Utrecht, The Netherlands) reported in February in the online version of the Lancet that pancreatitis patients who had received probiotics in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 296 patients fared worse than patients in the placebo group.

While the number of patients with infectious complications was about the same in both groups, 16% of the patients in the probiotics group died, compared with only 6% in the placebo group.

"Our findings show that probiotics should not be administered routinely in patients with predicted severe acute pancreatitis, and that the particular composition used here should be banned for the present indication," wrote the authors. "Whether other combinations of strains might have resulted in different results is debatable, but, until the underlying mechanisms is actually revealed, administration of probiotics in patients with predicted severe acute pancreatitis must be regarded as unsafe."

The results of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Lancet.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH; Bethesda, MD) is putting some of these recommendations into practice. Last December, NIH launched the Human Microbiome Project, an ambitious attempt to map the collective genomes of all microorganisms that live on or in the human body. NIH hopes to apply the genetic data gathered through the project to a wide array of medical disciplines.

"The human microbiome is largely unexplored," NIH director Elias Zerhouni, MD, said last December when he announced the project. "It is essential that we understand how microorganisms interact with the human body to affect health and disease. This project has the potential to transform the ways we understand human health and prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of conditions."

NIH will kick off the project by distributing $115 million in grants over the next five years to researchers who will sequence approximately 600 microbial genomes. Other NIH institutes will also contribute data to the project. In addition, NIH is exploring the idea of setting up an international consortium with overseas researchers.

New Tools to Solve Microbial Mysteries

Thanks to new and emerging technologies, NIH will have an array of new tools at its disposal to learn about the relationships between microbes and human health. To collect the genomic data, the researchers will extract samples from several regions of the body known to house microorganisms, including the digestive tract, mouth, skin, nose, and female urogenital tract. NIH research teams then will use metagenomic sequencing to analyze DNA from entire communities of microbes that live in these regions, rather than relying on single, isolated cultures grown in laboratories.

"Our goal is to discover what microbial communities exist in different parts of the human body and to explore how these different communities change in the presence of health and disease," explained Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. "In addition, we will likely identify novel genes and functional elements in microbial genomes that will reshape the way we think about and approach human biology."

Grants Offered to Young Probiotics Researchers

 

The rapidly expanding field of probiotics research may get a shot in the arm from two new grants offered by the Global Probiotics Council (Alexandria, VA).

Sponsored by Groupe Danone (Paris) and Yakut Honsha Company, Ltd. (Tokyo), the two $50,000 Young Investigator Grants will help researchers in the fields of gastroenterology, immunology, genetics, molecular and cell biology, microbiology, and infectious disease.

"Our two companies have demonstrated their longstanding commitment to advancing research in probiotics," said Sven Thormhalen, executive vice president of research and development for Danone.

"Emerging science on the regular consumption of probiotic-containing products shows how these products can help to regulate the intestinal ecosystem and benefit health," added Ryuji Chino, senior managing director of Yakult. "These grants will enable young investigators who are senior fellows or junior faculty to further explore the health benefits of probiotics. These grants will also further advance understanding about the relationship between probiotics and the intestinal flora and are anticipated to expand the already stable research platform."

For more information about the Young Investigator Grant for Probiotics Research Program, visit www.probioticsresearch.com.

One area that may hold particular promise, NIH scientists say, is the digestive tract, which is home to probiotic organisms that stimulate the immune system and enhance digestion. Other research suggests that microbial communities may collectively impact conditions as diverse as asthma, diabetes, and obesity.

"Microbes play a significant role in the health of the digestive tract, and many digestive diseases result when the microbial environment is out of balance," said Griffin Rogers, MD, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "The Human Microbiome Project will help us better understand the microbial environment in the gut, as well as provide us with the tools and technology to expand our exploration into this field of research."

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