Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New social network requires sign-up with stool sample

A new social network has a rather interesting way of connecting people: a German initiative called MyMicrobes aims at connecting people with the same intestinal characteristics. Their purpose is to let people with a comparable set of microbes in their guts connect with each other and share questions and experiences about any intestinal complaints they might have. This involves sharing information about diets and dealing with gastrointestinal nuisances. Currently, there are around 130 members.

Signing up for the social network does not only require your guts, but will also set you back 2100 dollars. For that amount of money, you will get a kit that allows you to prepare a stool sample, which you will need to send to the German researchers that set up the MyMicrobes network. Thereafter, your stool sample will be genetically analysed for a set number of genes. This will tell the researchers something about the characteristics of the little creatures that live in your intestines, and the impact it may have on your body.

According to a recent study published in Nature, there are three main types of microbial flora. Each one of these so called enterotypes have properties that influence the way your gut functions. Interestingly, your microbial mark-up is not influenced by gender, age or body weight, making the "microbiome" an important separate factor involved with the development of gastrointestinal anomalies. As far as my knowledge reaches, it is still unclear what causes humans to develop a certain enterotype. Perhaps, there is a genetic component, which causes you to inherit a set of microbial features from your parents.

Gut bacteria
We have many bacteria living in our guts. They are mostly localized to the intestines: there are a lot of mechanic and immunological defence mechanisms that prevent entry of microbes into other parts of the body, where they might cause damage. However, the microbes that have made our body their home have a significant influence on the way we function. A disturbed microbial flora is associated with a variety of gastrointestinal diseases. One of the underlying causes is niche competition: when "healthy" bacteria inhabit our guts, that means there is less space for pathogenic bacteria that manage to enter our bodies. I would, however, not bet on the numerous probiotic drinks to keep your body-own microbes healthy. As far as I know, there is no conclusive evidence showing beneficial health effects of probiotics. However, it has become clear that the microbial flora plays an important role in the body. We can't live without them, while they benefit from making our gut their home. Synergism, it's a beautiful natural phenomenon.

Did you know humans have more microbes than cells in their bodies? You could say we are but a shell to keep other organisms alive. 

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