BSF-funded Researchers Digesting New Discoveries about Bacteria in the Human Gut
Everyone knows that the food we eat has an undeniable impact on obesity, diabetes, and a host of other ailments. Yet, believe it or not, scientists are just now beginning to uncover bacteria in the human digestive tract that could hold the key to providing healthier foods and beverages.
Edward Bayer with part of his extensive fossil collection
In a BSF-funded initiative, Prof. Edward Bayer of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel is collaborating with professors Eric Martens and Nicole Koropatkin of the University of Michigan. Together, they’re looking at two particular forms of bacteria found in the human gut (Ruminococcus bromii and
Ruminococcus champanellensis) and how they degrade starch and cellulose – two carbohydrates found in hundreds of natural and processed foods.
Once this is understood, functional foods can be designed to manipulate the composition of the human gut microbiota and thus improve gut and metabolic health. In addition, further understanding of these
Ruminococci could possibly lead to development of alternative methods for efficient industrial processing of starch and cellulose for not only foods and beverages, but also for biofuels development.
“We hope that our work will not only reveal how gut bacteria consume carbohydrates, but also provide new insights as to how carbohydrate consumption can shape the gut microbiota (microbes in the human intestine),” Koropatkin said.
Nicole Koropatkin and Eric Martens, partners in science and in life.
The BSF funds are helping to support a postdoctoral researcher, Darrell Cockburn, who is working in the University of Michigan lab on a detailed study of several enzymes that allow the growth of Ruminococcus bromii on resistant starch. In addition, the BSF grant promotes reciprocal visits between the United States and Israel.
“This is really critical for promoting the research that we have planned,” Bayer said. “The on-site visits and ensuing discussions are value-added aspects of this grant that cannot, in my opinion, be understated.”
Martens credits the BSF funding with enabling “both synergy and creativity between researchers in the US and Israel to explore new topics that could become much bigger projects. The biology of the human gut microbiota is so unexplored, and the new cellulosome-based pathways that the Bayer lab is defining are so novel, that we don’t know exactly where this project will lead!”
For more than three decades, Bayer has been investigating the multi-enzyme cellulosome complex produced by bacteria in nature, as well as in the digestive tracts of animals that feed on plants. Similar types of cellulose-degrading bacteria were very recently discovered in the human digestive tract. Since Martens and Koropatkin are experts in the human gut microbiome, Bayer asked them to participate with him and his team.
“This enabled us to combine our very diverse expertise into a multidisciplinary view of these very specialized bacteria that surprisingly inhabit the human gut,” said Bayer. “For myself and my group, this is exceptionally exciting!”
When they’re not involved in scientific experiments, Martens and Koropatkin (who are husband and wife) raise two small boys and live with a menagerie of animals – including 16 snakes.
“I became interested in keeping snakes as a hobby, in part, because of their amazing digestive capacity,” Martens said. “What other animal swallows a whole meal that is more than 50 percent of its body weight and digests this to almost no waste? There must be gut bacteria involved!”
Eric Martens shows off one of his 16 snakes
Bayer’s primary hobby – collecting fossils – also stems from his love of science.
“I have a fossil collection that includes trilobites, brachiopods, gastropods and fossil fish,” he said. “When I was 5, I used to look at the pictures of long-extinct animals and their fossils, and I dreamt about how life was in the beginning. This led to a love of science and research. I remain the 5-year-old little boy that I always was. I have not changed!”