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The discovery of unusual foraging activity in bacteria species populating our gut may explain how conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) link to changes in the populations of bacteria in our gut.
IBD affects 1 in every 250 people in the UK, but its causes are unknown. Studies have shown that IBD patients have a different profile of gut microbes, which is called dysbiosis.
All of us have trillions of beneficial bacteria in our gut, but the combination of different species, known as the microbiome, varies. A crucial question has been whether IBD causes our microbiome to change, or whether an imbalanced microbiome could be triggering IBD. And exactly how does one affect the other? We need to study these interactions to define new targets for therapeutics.
Nathalie Juge and colleagues at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) have been trying to answer these questions by looking at the environment in which gut bacteria grow mucus. IFR is strategically supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Mucus covers the lining of our gut and provides an ideal environment for gut bacteria to grow by providing them with a rich source of sugars. However not all bacteria can consume mucus, and it’s been shown recently that IBD patients had a higher proportion of specific mucus-degrading bacteria called Ruminococcus gnavus, common gut bacteria found in most individuals.
Mucus is made up of long molecules, called mucins, which consist of protein chains, decorated with sugars, and usually capped with sialic acid, a sugar residue widely distributed in animal tissues. To use mucins, bacteria first have to remove the sialic acid. Once this is done, the sialic acid becomes available as a nutrient source for the whole of the bacterial community in the mucosal environment.
This means mucin-degrading bacteria have an important role in the whole bacterial community, so the researchers set out to work out what makes them effective.
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