Once upon a time I went to Disneyland. My excuse is that it was a long time ago. So long, in fact, that I don’t need to specify where — it was before theme park cloning got going. Goodness knows why I went — given that if I was inclined to sticking pins in things, Mickey Mouse would be a prime target — though, logically, a model of Walt would come first. But one memory of that visit recurs unbidden to this day: the song ‘it’s a small world (after all).’ I know. I shouldn’t blame Disney as it was the Sherman Brothers greatest hit — and what with also writing the scores for Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, they’ve got a lot to answer for. Nevertheless and irritating though the jingle may be, it contains a rather profound line:
‘There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware, It’s a small world after all’.
And that will do very well as our theme for the day.
A sobering thought about being human is that we’re mostly bugs – that’s to say on a cell to cell basis the microbes in our bodies outnumber us by ten to one. Ten to one: time for lunch, to recycle the old Goon Show gag, but first perhaps you should survey your microbiota – the 1000 or so assorted species of bacteria that have made you their home. Most of them (99%) reside in your digestive tract and we don’t notice them, of course, because they’re so much smaller than the cells of our body (they make up less than 3% of our mass). Sometimes called gut flora, they’re important in squeezing the last ounce of energy from what we eat by helping to digest sugars and they also make some vitamins that we need. You could, then, think of this unseen army of tiny cells as an organ in their own right. Unnoticed they may be but you upset them at your peril, as everyone knows who’s taken a course of antibiotics (e.g., penicillin) to get rid of unwanted bugs.
This vast force of bacteria, toiling away on our behalf in the dungeon of our innards, includes two major sub-families, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. Don’t worry about pronunciation: think of them as B & F. What’s important is that obese animals (including humans) have about half the number of Bs and double that of Fs, compared to normal. That’s a startling shift – the sort of result that gets scientists thinking: something fishy going on here. But what really gets their antennae twitching is the follow-up result. Each bug has its own genetic material (DNA) carrying a set of genes — different for each species. From faecal samples (i.e. stools) the total number of microbial genes can be estimated and — astonishingly — it turns out that there are several hundred times the number of our own genes. We have about 20,000, the bugs muster several million. But the really provocative result is that this total of microbial genes in our gut drops if we become obese:
Fewer genes = more body fat
More genes (a more diverse microbiome) = healthy status.
Cause or effect?
A good question — that can be answered by man’s best friend. Yes, I’m afraid it’s Mickey again. Mice born under aseptic conditions by Caesarean section don’t have any gut microbes — they’re ‘germ-free’ mice — and they grow up with less body fat than normal mice. However, give them the gut army from a normal mouse and they more than double their body fat in a couple of weeks. The microbiota from an obese mouse makes them gain twice as much fat. What happens if you colonise germ-free mice with human gut microbes? If they’re from someone who’s obese the mice also become obese, if fed a high-fat rather than a normal diet.
Because obesity is all about the balance between energy extracted from food and that expended, all this suggests that obesity-associated microbiomes increase the efficiency of extraction.
But if that’s the case maybe there are some slackers in the bug world – types that are pretty hopeless at food processing. Might they offset obesity? Well, at least one (by the name of Akkermansia muciniphila) does just that — again in mice — and its numbers are much reduced in obese people but go up after gastric bypass surgery that reduces the absorption of nutrients from food. This offers the seductive notion that some types of bug might help to reduce obesity.
You may have spotted a bit of a cause for concern: if the make up of our gut bugs can affect how our bodies work — and especially whether we put on weight — what happens when we zap ourselves with antibiotics? The problem is, of course, that these drugs target a range of bacteria — they’re not particularly choosy — which is why you get diarrhœa when you take penicillin for a throat infection. And it’s not just you. In the UK we consume 30 million antibiotic prescriptions a year: Americans get through over 250 million and their children get an average of 15 courses of antibiotics in their early years.
The problem here is not about antibiotics being wonderful and saving millions of lives but the possibility that they might have long-term effects. Evidence for this has come from Martin Blaser’s group at New York University who showed that some antibiotics make mice put on weight and build up fat. What’s more, a high-fat diet adds to this effect. Remarkably, changes in the mice microbiota occur before they become obese — and the effects are for life. It seems extraordinary that a short drug pulse, such as we might give a child to cure an ear infection, can have permanent effects. The explanation may be that some gut bacteria are better at surviving the drug treatment resulting in a shift of microbiota balance to give more efficient digestion — i.e. greater energy provision.
It may not be coincidence that the escalation in antibiotic use since the 1940s has paralleled the obesity explosion. In 1989 no USA state had an obesity level above 14%; by 2010 none was below 20% — and the national average is now 30%.
Bugs and cancer: drivers or mirrors?
Those who follow this blog will know that where obesity lurks cancer looms. Indeed transferring microbiota to germ-free mice has been shown to promote a wide range of tumours and, conversely, depleting intestinal bacteria reduces the development of liver and colon cancers. It’s also worth noting that bowel cancer occurs more frequently in the large intestine than in the small — which may reflect the much higher microbial density.
Is it a small world after all?
All these findings suggest that our bug contingent can influence the onset of obesity and various cancers and that even brief drug treatments can have permanent effects on its make up. We have only the vaguest idea how this happens and most of the evidence so far comes from Mickey’s rellos. Even so, maybe in time we will be able to manipulate our personal gut micro-worlds to augment our defences against these potent foes.
Martin J. Blaser: Missing microbes, Henry Holt & Company 2014