Friday, December 14, 2012

Microbe-made molecules may be future drugs

Our ancestors first “invited in” gut bugs 450 million years ago because it let them harness bacterial enzymes to get more energy from more kinds of food. Today, microbes contribute 360 times as many genes responsible for the human ability to convert food into energy as human genes themselves. Complex microbial communities occupy our skin, nose and mouth as well, and humans and their bugs may have become a single super-organism.

The subject made national news in June when the Human Microbiome Project, NIH-funded effort to catalog the mix of bugs living on and in Americans, reported its first results. With the typical set of bugs now outlined, researchers are searching for the bug profiles that correlate with diseases, including cancer.

Against this backdrop, the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center chose "cancer and the microbiome" as the theme for its recent research retreat. The Mix interviewed several retreat presenters, and is featuring the chats as a podcast series.

Our guest for this last podcast in the series is James Versalovic, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pathology and Immunology at Baylor College of Medicine. We talked about how new understanding of the mechanistic details behind human cell/microbial crosstalk may lead to new treatments.  


Show notes for the podcast

2:08 Different sites in the body play host to entirely different complex communities of bacteria and other microbes. 

2:45 The line is blurry between microbial cells and human cells because they constantly "talk" as they work together to do so many jobs in the human body. 

3:33  This conversation is really an exchange of biochemical signals, some of them carried by small molecules produced by microbes, the subject of Dr.Versalovic's presentation at the UAB retreat. Microbial small molecules were first studied because they interact with our immune system to cause inflammation.  More broadly, evidence is emerging that human organs evolved in such close cooperation with microbe-made molecules that such molecules have become critical to the ability of several organs to function.

4:34 As a baby is born, all the tools are in place for his or her immune system to develop, but those tools are not trained yet to work in the real world. Exposure to many bugs starts at birth, and in fact, the mother's bugs help to determine the baby's mix of bug species. 

4:48 One might think the most important lessons learned by a baby's immune cells are about which invading organisms to attack and destroy to protect the body from infection. In fact, much of the education is about tolerance. The cells develop in the presence of many helpful bugs, and learn not to become activated to easily to cause unwanted inflammation. A mature system only loses its cool when faced with a considerable threat. 

6:17  Just like some people who are quick to anger, some people happen to have a labile immune systems that too often and in the wrong context becomes activated. Not having had the proper education, such oversensitive system can lead to systemic autoimmune, allergic and inflammatory conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. 

7:25 Babies' microbiomes are getting off to different starts in life based on whether they are delivered vaginally versus through C-section.  A C-section baby is more likely to start with bacteria from a mother's skin, where the kid born via "natural childbirth" starts with the mother's gut bugs in his or her gut. Over time the babies' bodies compensate but there could be long-term consequences. 

9:09  Normally, the microbiome helps to keep the immune system in check, so that it is not constantly overreacting to cause systemic inflammation. Over time though, things like diet, obesity or smoking, perhaps a bad infection, may alter this balance.

10:25 A goal of Dr. Versalovic's effort to understand how microbial small molecules signal to the immune system may inform efforts to design drugs that calm down the immune system the same way a healthy microbiome does. Researcher may be able to synthesize compounds made by bacteria, or compounds in the diet changed by gut bacteria, which improve organ function. 

11:40 We feed our microbiome when we feed ourselves, so it pays to chose your diet carefully. As we understand it better, we will have better idea of how the molecules making up food interact with various microbial species to impact health and disease. 

12:25 The compounds produced by interactions between the gut microbiome and food may be affecting physiology throughout the body, including in the brain, where early work has tied diet-driven changes in the gut microbiome to behavioral changes. 

15:03 Dr. Versalovic recommends that students and researchers interested in finding out more about the microbiome visit the Human Microbiome Project's DACC site.

Please click on the following links to listen to the other podcasts in this series. 


  1. The caliber of collection that you are providing is but marvelous.

  2. This is so fascinating ... I had literally discovered this on my own (the fact that there are different groups of microbiomes living in the body) at a very personal level. A lot of people thought I was crazy when I talked about it, but I didn't care, because I have a new relationship with my body that is so amazing. The more I communicate with, and pamper, "them" (my microbes), the more "they" love and pamper me. Also, through this new understanding of my body, I have had countless amazing spiritual moments of which I can't begin to go into here. From what I have witnessed, microbes, as well as us, are perfectionists, they like to be in perfect pairs, and they will sacrifice their lives for the good of the whole. I now respect bugs and the bacterial world soo much more too, and I try to use earth-friendly products. Thank you for the great research/article. I am so happy to have "proof of my sanity" for the drones of society. There is a wonderful sense of HUMOR about the world with LOVE and TRUTH as the eternal link. ... DON'T SETTLE FOR LESS!


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