By Ross Pelton, RPh, PhD, CNN
Over the past decade, research into the microbiome and probiotics has resulted in a dramatic paradigm-changing understanding of our health and the very nature of life. I like to use the Hubble Space Telescope as an analogy to express the significance of these changes.
When the Hubble began looking far out into the universe and transmitting its information back to earth, it rapidly began to change scientist’s fundamental understanding of the universe and of life. Initially the scientists involved (astrophysicists, astronomers and theoretical physicists) were puzzled. Their long-held belief systems were challenged and ultimately forced to change. Life was much more complex than they had ever imagined.
So it is with the microbiome, which is the term that refers to the organisms that reside in and on the human body. In the “world” of probiotics, the term microbiome refers to the estimated 100 trillion bacteria that reside in the gastrointestinal tract. What follows is the story of how our understanding of the microbiome and the very nature of life has recently changed.
The Human Genome Project (HGP) began in 1990 and was completed in 2003 at an estimated cost of $3 billion. The outcome was the successful sequencing of the human genome. One of the primary goals of the HGP was that the sequencing of the human genome would enable scientists to discover cures for many of our chronic degenerative diseases. It turns out that goal was a 100% failure. Sequencing the human genome has not resulted in cures for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or any other of today’s common diseases.
However, one of the biggest benefits from the Human Genome Project was the development of incredible technology that enabled sequencing genomes at a much faster rate, and at a much lower cost. Sequencing the first human genome took 13 years and cost $3 billion. In Jan. 2017, Ilumina Corp. announced their new NoveSeq machine that they expect will be able to sequence an entire genome for $100 in less than an hour. This represents an almost incomprehensible acceleration in the speed of scientific advancement. These scientific advancements in genetic sequencing technology gave scientists the ability to begin sequencing the genomes of bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract.
The Human Microbiome Project (2007-2012) initiated a massive acceleration of research into the microbiome and the bacteria that reside in the human GI tract. The genetic sequencing technology developed during and after the Human Genome Project is what made this massive acceleration possible. The Hubble viewed billions of galaxies in the macrocosm of the universe and helped change some of our most fundamental beliefs about life. And now, scientists are studying trillions of bacteria in the microcosm of our microbiome, and this research is also changing some of our fundamental beliefs about life.
Scientists now realize that over 99% of the bacteria that reside in the human intestinal tract are anaerobic which means they live in non-oxygen environment. When they get exposed to oxygen they immediately die. This means that until recently, scientists could only study less than 1% of the bacteria that live in the human microbiome, those that can survive when exposed to oxygen.
The new genetic sequencing technology enabled scientists to begin to study the other 99% of the human microbiome. Sequencing bacterial genomes not only enables scientists to identify and name various strains of bacteria, but also, scientists are beginning to learn compounds they produce and what the important health-regulating characteristics of those compounds are. We refer to these compounds produced by your probiotic bacteria as postbiotic metabolites.
When scientists successfully sequenced the human genome, they discovered that humans have about 23,000 genes, which is far fewer than they expected to find. These genes contain the DNA in the nucleus of every cell in your body (1 copy from your mother and 1 copy from your father). This created what scientists referred to as The Genome Complexity Conundrum. Here’s the conundrum. The common rice plant contains about 45,000 genes. Scientists were puzzled. If we humans are such complex, evolved beings, then how come the simple rice plant has nearly twice as many genes as humans. The answer to this conundrum is that:
Sequences of DNA are the code or instructions for life. Every protein, every enzyme, every cell in the body is built according to DNA/gene instructions. Now we understand why we don’t need so many human genes, because our probiotic bacteria utilize their DNA and genes to control and regulate, either directly or indirectly, a vast amount of the activity that takes place in the human body.
This understanding emphasizes why is it so critically important to create and maintain a healthy microbiome. A diverse population of probiotic bacteria produces a multitude of postbiotic metabolites, which in turn, help regulate and control a wide range of functions related to health.
In May, 2016, the White House announced the $121 million funding of the new National Microbiome Initiative. Also, over 100 non-government groups have agreed to commit over $400 million to support further microbiome research. This total of $521 million in funding assures that research into the microbiome and how it influences and regulates human health will continue to advance rapidly.
Conclusion: One of the most critical aspects of creating and maintaining a healthy microbiome is learning how to feed your probiotic bacteria well. Probiotic bacteria require and thrive on non-digestible fibers that are found predominantly in multi-colored vegetables and fruits. This explains why salads and a plant-based diet are so important for health. On the other hand, high sugar, high fat, low fiber diets that are the norm in America’s processed food, fast food, junk food diets are the types of foods that encourage the growth of pathological bacteria. This in turn leads to GI inflammation, intestinal permeability/leaky gut and the development of autoimmune diseases.