Discover the Wonders of Our Microbial World
Have you ever wondered how the tiny organisms living in your gut impact your health? We’re captivated by this invisible world of gut microbes, known as the microbiota, and we’re particularly intrigued by what goes on during the early stages of life.
In our ‘Guardians of the Gut’ themed activities and exhibits, we delve into the incredible diversity of microbes that populate your gut from day one. We explore their initial colonisation, including how they differ between natural births and C-sections. We also shine a spotlight on specific types of microbes, like Bifidobacterium – our personal favourites! These microbes act as the true guardians of your gut by contributing to healthy development. They help digest components of our food, whether it’s breast or formula milk, and they even communicate with our immune cells.
Since these bacteria are vital for our well-being, we also investigate the consequences of disturbing these early life microbial communities, such as through the use of antibiotics. These disturbances can have both short-term and long-term effects and may increase the risk of infections and chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and even cancer. Finally, we showcase some of the cutting-edge approaches and therapies we and others are developing to nurture healthy early life microbial ecosystems. These innovations aim to maintain health and provide treatments for various diseases.
Now, let’s dive into some fascinating facts and figures about our microbial world:
1. We’re roughly half microbe and half human! In fact, we have around 1.3 times more microbial cells than human cells, with up to 5,000 microbial species.
2. The term “microbiota” encompasses all microbes, including bacteria, viruses, archaea, eukaryotes, and fungi.
3. Microbial genes (the so called “microbiome”) outnumber human genes by a staggering factor of 150!
4. Microbes colonise various parts of our bodies, from our skin, lungs and mouth to our gut, which happens to be the most popular and diverse microbial hotspot.
5. Our understanding of the microbiota has advanced hand in hand with technological progress, with DNA and RNA sequencing playing a significant role in unravelling the complexities of microbial life.
6. Earlier research once suggested the presence of a microbiota within the placenta and the developing foetus in the womb. However, many recent studies have presented a different perspective, indicating that these body sites are, in fact, considered ‘sterile.’ It’s only during the process of birth that babies begin to acquire their initial microbial inhabitants.
7. The mode of birth affects the types of microbes you receive. C-section babies tend to acquire more skin-like microbes initially, while babies born naturally inherit microbes directly from their mothers – especially those from the vagina and gut.
8. Early life diet has a profound influence on the composition of gut microbes. Breast milk contains specific dietary sugar components known as human milk oligosaccharides, which nourish particular bacteria like Bifidobacterium. These microbes break down these components, producing beneficial compounds such short-chain fatty acids and vitamins.
9. A significant portion of our immune system matures during the early stages of life, and our resident gut bacteria play a crucial role in shaping the function of immune cells. This is because the gut is home to most of our immune cells, making it a pivotal interface for microbe-immune interactions.
10. The microbial ecosystem is remarkably unstable during the early phases of life, making it more susceptible to disturbances, such as antibiotics. While antibiotics are essential for combating harmful pathogens, they can also eliminate beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium. This might explain why babies who receive frequent antibiotic treatments during infancy have a higher risk of developing chronic gut and immune disorders, such as Ulcerative Colitis and Asthma. Additionally, diet and birth mode, like C-sections versus natural births, are associated with alterations in early life microbial communities and reduced levels of Bifidobacterium, further linking these factors to increased rates of chronic allergic and inflammatory conditions.
11. Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is a method to restore the microbial ecosystem when it is disrupted. Patients with Clostridioides difficile infection who do not respond to antibiotic treatment can receive FMT through the NHS. This treatment has been highly successful, with a remarkable 94% cure rate, leading to its inclusion in The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines.
12. Another approach to rebalance our microbes involves administering probiotics, defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “live organisms that, when given in adequate amounts, confer health benefits on the host.” Traditionally, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species and strains have been used. However, researchers are now exploring other species. Groups like ours are actively working towards the rational design of Bifidobacterium therapies with the goal of improving maternal and infant health through these innovative approaches. Several companies and researchers are actively engaged in the development of ‘live biotherapeutic products (LBPs),’ essentially using microorganisms as medicinal agents. They aim to target particular diseases, such as cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Come join us as we unravel the mysteries of the microbial world and explore its impact on our lives and well-being. It’s a journey filled with wonder and discovery!