In a review published today in Nature Biotechnology, researchers describe how microbes in the gut form the second largest metabolic 'organ' in the body and play a key role in disease processes alongside genetic and environmental factors.
Microbes in the gut can weigh up to one kilogram in a normal adult human, and collectively can contain more genes than the host. The combination of interacting genes from the body and gut microbes can be considered a 'super-organism', capable of co-ordinating many physiological and metabolic responses, say the researchers.
Professor Jeremy Nicholson, from Imperial College London, and lead researcher comments: "We have known for some time that many diseases are influenced by a variety of factors, including both genetics and environment, but the concept of this 'superorganism' could have a huge impact on our understanding of disease processes including those related to insulin-resistance, heart disease, some cancers and perhaps even some neurological diseases".
"The discovery of how microbes in the gut can influence the body's responses to disease means that we now need more research into this area. The deciphering of the human genome was a huge step forward for medicine, but we now need much more research into the microbes found in the gut and how they interact with their mammalian hosts' metabolism. Understanding these interactions as will extend human biology and medicine well beyond the human genome and help elucidate novel types of gene-environment interactions, this knowledge ultimately leading to new approaches to the treatment of disease. "
Professor Ian Wilson, from Astra Zeneca, and one of the researchers adds: "This 'human super-organism' concept could have a huge impact on how we develop drugs, as individuals can have very different responses to drug metabolism and toxicity. The microbes can influence things such as the pH levels in the gut and the immune response, all of which can have effects on the effectiveness of drugs."
The researchers believe it will be possible to develop a model for testing the body's response to disease, looking at how the microbes in the gut interact with each other, mammalian genes and other environmental factors to understand why some drugs work well in some people but not others.
Professor Nicholson adds: "Understanding the man-microbe interaction is likely to be crucial in realising personalised medicine and healthcare in the future."
Notes to editors:
1. The Challenges of Modelling Mammalian Biocomplexity, Nature Biotechnology, NBT-R10787, 6 October 2004.
2. Consistently rated in the top three UK university institutions, Imperial College London is a world leading science-based university whose reputation for excellence in teaching and research attracts students (10,000) and staff (5,000) of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and management and delivers practical solutions that enhance the quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture. Website: www.imperial.ac.uk.