• Amy Loughman

At the Frontiers of Microbiome Research

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

A few weeks ago, I attended a microbiome conference as part of the Frontiers of Science, an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science. It was chock-full of the brightest early and mid-career scientists working on understanding the relevance of the microbiome for health and the natural environment.

View from the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute

The microbiome was chosen as the topic of this year’s conference because of the increasing awareness of its importance in so many aspects of life — both human and non-human. As a health researcher focused almost solely on human work, what struck me was just how widely relevant the microbiome is outside of the human body too. There is active Australian and international microbiome research happening in the far-flung topics including Antarctica, seaweed, soil, wine and pigs!

Bacteria always have, and will continue to play a significant role in making this world we live in.

5 fascinating facts from some of Australia’s top emerging scientists

1.The evolution of human dietary changes are visible in the fossilised dental calculus of ancient human remains. Work by Laura Weyrich and her group have identified microbiome changes in the dental calculus (the white stuff the dentist scrapes off your teeth) between hunter-gatherer times and the start of agriculture and meat eating. Proof that diet changes the oral microbiome as well as the gut microbiome!

2. Oils ain’t oils. New research from Yan Lam at the University of Sydney has shown that mice that were fed chow high in omega 3 fatty acids don’t put on as much weight as those that were fed with chow high in saturated fat or canola oil. All rats ate the same amount, but those fed with high omega 3 diets (instead of those high saturated fat or canola oil) didn’t show the same problems with weight or metabolic syndrome that the other rats did.

3. On that note, fibre ain’t fibre either. One of the reasons eating a high fibre diet is so important is because it feeds gut bacteria which then have the energy to produce the right biological products to keep the body functioning well. Some clever researchers at CSIRO and Macquarie University are looking into common fibre supplements (such as Nutrikane, Benefibre and psyllium husk) and are finding that they’re not all created equal. So far it has just been in simulated digestive tracts (“in vitro experiments”), but stay tuned for human trials!

4. Gut bacteria have a direct influence on how much energy is extracted from food intake. Some indigenous Australian communities have been found to have gut bacteria that is particularly good at getting energy out of foods, and is thought to have evolved from the high-protein termites that were part of a traditional diet. Unfortunately in our high-calorie modern world, these bacteria make people more prone to obesity. Food choices are of course super important, but it’s far more complex than just calories in, calories out.

5. A common cause of death following stroke is post-stroke pneumonia (lung infection). Research by the dynamic Dana Stanley at Central Queensland University and Connie Wong at Monash University is looking at the role of the gut and its microbiota in post-stroke pneumonia. Dana’s group have observed that the lining of the gut is disrupted following stroke and that bacteria from the gut (Akkermansia and Lactobacillus in particular) are somehow getting to the lung. These particular bacterial species aren’t considered pathogenic (i.e. disease-causing) but are likely to be somehow related to the occurrence of pneumonia following stroke.

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