The result of the pairing, along with chemistry graduate student Anthony Santilli and undergraduate genetics major and student-athlete Elizabeth Dawson, is a recent study in the journal ACS Chemical Biology, which details the use of a small molecule to slow the growth of a specific genus of bacteria, called Bacteroides, in the gut microbiome. The technique is a novel diversion from existing treatment strategies that target the gut microbiome, in that it holds the potential to edit specific types of bacteria in the gut without harming other microbes that are present.
The connection between the microbiome – our own personal collection of bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses – and human health is one that has been gaining steam over the last few decades. Supported by numerous studies that implicate the microbiome in chronic diseases, immunity, digestion and even feelings of depression and anxiety, it appears that our bodies’ microbes serve a variety of important functions that are only just being realized.
The Bacteroides genus is no exception. The researchers’ interest in this specific strain of bacteria developed for two reasons, marked first by Bacteroides’ well-defined job in the gut microbiome. The bacteria have an intricate collection of enzymes that are responsible for the breakdown of complex carbohydrates, specifically that of starches. Knowing precisely how the bacteria function made it easier for the researchers to develop hypotheses on how to manipulate the Bacteroides system.
But the second reason considers a peculiar link between Bacteroides and Type 1 diabetes, a chronic disorder in which the pancreas produces little to no insulin.
“We know there are certain genetic risk factors associated with Type 1, but not everybody with those risk factors develops the disease and not everybody with Type 1 has those risk factors,” Kristi said. “When you combine that with the significant increase in the diagnosis of Type 1 over the past two decades, researchers are starting to look at environmental factors – something in our diet or maybe something like C-sections versus vaginal births or antibiotic use in infants. What has changed to cause an increase in the rate of Type 1?”
One study in particular – the TEDDY study – is tracking babies from birth to age 15 to determine which environmental triggers cause children to develop Type 1 diabetes. Most notably to the researchers, the TEDDY study has shown a marked increase