Gut Reaction: Investigating Intestinal Microbes
Thursday, Apr. 28, 2011
Michael Lefevre, a Utah State University USTAR researcher, and a team of USU faculty have begun working in a novel area. They are studying how intestinal, or “gut,” microflora — bacteria living inside the colon — may impact overall health.
Lefevre isn’t starting from scratch.
“Much of the ground level research has been done,” said Lefevre. “Scientists around the world have done the basic research. The role for us is to extend and translate that research into viable commercial applications.”
Lefevre, a USTAR professor in the department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Sciences within the College of Agriculture, came to Utah State University three years ago from Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. His research interests include personalized nutrition — where diet might be matched to an individual’s specific genetic makeup to optimize health. Recently Lefevre began studying gut microflora because of its potential impact for personalized nutrition.
“Most people don’t realize that trillions of microbes inhabit our gut and are involved in many functions on our behalf, from extracting additional energy from the food we eat, to priming our immune system to fight off infection,” said Lefevre. “Our gut microflora thumbprint arises from complex processes involving genes, environment and diet.”
Gut microflora don’t come exclusively from the foods humans eat. Colonies of gut microflora develop before birth and impact overall health throughout the course of an individual’s life. Early factors that contribute to gut microflora colonization include delivery method of the infant, formula vs. breastmilk feeding choices and the use of antibiotics after birth.
Animal models and human studies have demonstrated that a number of diseases are linked to gut health. Diets high in fats and sugars cause a lack of diversity in gut microflora; healthy diet choices such as reintroducing plant-based foods into the diet may help to promote a more productive gut microflora profile.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that there are 10 times more bacteria located in the intestines than human cells exist in the body. The push for researchers, including Lefevre and other USU faculty, is to better understand the connection between nutrition and gut bacteria and the impact it has on overall health.
Lefevre is capitalizing on existing USU resources and expertise. The newly constructed USTAR BioInnovations Center on the USU Innovation Campus provides the state-of-the-art facility for gut microflora research, and a gene sequencer, located within the Center for Integrated BioSystems at USU, further supports Lefevre’s research.
The interdisciplinary research team includes faculty members Jeff Broadbent, associate vice president for research, who studies probiotics and immunity; Bob Ward, who studies links between food chemistry and nutrition; Korry Hintz, who studies gastrointestinal inflammation and permeability; Giovanni Rompato, a post–doc fellow in the Center for Integrated BioSystems who studies microbial communities; and Abby Benninghoff, who researches gene expression and cancer.
Lefevre and his Applied Nutrition Research team have partnered with USU Commercial Enterprises to accelerate the process of working with industry partners and to create market-ready products for consumers. One Utah company, USANA, is excited about the work that is being done.
“We recently met with representatives from the Applied Nutrition Research team at Utah State University and had a chance to hear about their work on the interactions between phytonutrients and gut microflora,” said Tim Wood, executive vice president of research and development at USANA Health Sciences. “This is an exciting area and one that has real potential for the supplement industry.”
A pilot research project aimed at surveying the intestinal microbial community of residents of Cache County is the first step for Lefevre and members of the research team to better understand the role and diversity of gut microflora.
Individuals from northern Utah are invited to participate in the pilot research project. Participants receive a free nutritional analysis and blood work, as well as an opportunity to earn a modest stipend. Active recruiting efforts are underway. Interested parties may contact Janet Bergeson, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.
The Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) is a long-term, state-funded investment to strengthen Utah’s “knowledge economy” and generate high-paying jobs. Funded in March 2006 by the state legislature, USTAR is based on three program areas. The first area involves funding for strategic investments at the University of Utah and Utah State University to recruit world-class researchers. The second area is to build state-of-the-art interdisciplinary facilities at these institutions for the innovation teams. The third program area involves teams that work with companies and entrepreneurs across the state to promote science, innovation and commercialization activities.
More information is available at the website or follow USTAR on Twitter. For USU USTAR information, visit its website or follow on Twitter.