Scientists observed that individuals with low gut bacteria richness are featured by metabolic and inflammatory markers that associate with risk of developing obesity-linked disorders as type 2 diabetes and atherosclerosis.

Press release

Rich or poor in gut bacteria: we are not all equal facing obesity associated diseases

Published on
August 29, 2013

A study with a contribution by Wageningen University researchers, published today in Nature could lead to important outcomes in the field of preventive and personalized medicine. Carried out by the European Union-funded MetaHIT consortium led by INRA, this study showed for the first time that two groups of individuals can be distinguished in the population, that differ in the composition of their gut bacteria (microbiota).

Scientists observed that individuals with low gut bacteria richness are featured by metabolic and inflammatory markers that associate with risk of developing obesity-linked disorders as type 2 diabetes and atherosclerosis. This could lead to the development of a simple identification test for these people at risk and offer them a dedicated preventive solution.

The obesity epidemic affected 400 million adults in 2005; it will affect more than 700 million in 2015 and will continue to grow. The causes are partly due to external factors (sedentary lifestyle, easily obtained high energy food …) and partly due to genetic factors. However, the latter seem to account for only a minor part of the trend. More and more data show that variations in our “other” genome, the microbiome, i.e. the global genome of all microorganisms we host in our bodies, may have greater consequences on the onset of obesity than variations in the human genome.

Two groups of individuals according to the bacterial composition of the digestive tract

The study conducted by the Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract- MetaHIT - consortium focused on a cohort of 292 Danish adults, comprising 123 non-obese and 169 obese. The scientists analyzed their gut bacterial composition with the help of new high throughput approaches, including quantitative metagenomics and phylogenetic microarrays. The latter has been developed the Laboratory of  Microbiology at Wageningen University (headed by Willem M de Vos) and was used to show that the adult cohort could be divided into two groups based on the richness of bacteria they carry and the abundance of certain bacterial species. A quarter of the cohort is “poor” in bacteria, whereas the rest is “rich”. The difference of richness between the two groups depends on the method (counting genes (68 %) or counting bacteria (32 %). This distinction is not dependent on corpulence since lean and obese are found in both groups, even though 80 % of the low bacterial richness group are obese. The poor microbiota contains higher proportion of pro-inflammatory bacteria (like some Ruminococci that previously had been linked to inflammation) and lower proportion of anti-inflammatory bacterial species (like Akkermansia, a group of bacteria discovered in Wageningen and found to be improving the intestinal barrier in mice studies) than the rich one and therefore appears less healthy. The poor and rich individuals can be distinguished with high accuracy by a small number of bacterial species. Sebastian Tims who is completing his PhD thesis partly based on this study says: ‘’It was quite a surprise that the phylogenetic microarray (also know as the Human Intestinal Tract Chip) could be used to distinguish the high and low richness groups as previously this was only possible by quantitative metagenomics based on costly and complex deep sequencing’’

Gut bacteria richness correlates with metabolic and inflammatory markers in the blood

When comparing the two groups, scientists discovered that people with a poor microbiota have more body fat, are more resistant to the action of insulin, have unfavorably altered blood lipids and show increased blood levels of inflammation markers and white blood cells bringing them at increased risk of contracting pre-diabetes, overt type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.

Some bacterial species limit weight gain

Researchers also observed that obese people from the poor group gain more weight over time than the lean ones. These individuals either lacked entirely or had a very low abundance of eight particular bacterial species, which might therefore have a protective role against weight gain. Their discovery could lead to the development of new bacteria-therapies which help fight against weight gain.

This study paves the way for preventive and stratified medicine for chronic diseases, under the assumption that the impending alterations of gut microbial communities towards a less healthy state can be detected early and corrected by appropriate interventions.