The Body Ecology Diet (BED) Column
......with Donna Gates
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Tuesday, April 19th, 2011:
The Importance of Bacteria on the Foods You Eat
Microbiologists speculate that bacteria in the human body, mostly residing in the gut, outnumber our own cells 10 to 1.
This mass of microbes found in the bowels, referred to collectively as the gut microbiome or inner ecosystem, has a profound effect on our physiology. For the last several years, scientists have been calling the gut microbiome the "forgotten organ," because of the various necessary functions that it performs. (1) Not only do gut bacteria help to break down and digest food, as well as generate energy, but changes in gut microbiota have been linked to obesity, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn's disease.
You are what, or where, you eat.
Recently scientists have determined that distinct differences of gut microbiota can also develop depending on what region a person is from and consequently what foods are eaten. One study in particular discovered that the marine bacterium found on seaweed, Zobellia galactanivorans, has a specialized set of enzymes called porphyranases that break down the sulfur-rich carbohydrates found in marine algae, specifically nori.
Nori is extremely popular in Japanese cuisine and traditionally was eaten raw, leaving microbes alive and well. The enzymes that are able to break down the tough carbohydrates found in seaweeds are unique to oceanic bacteria.
Once this special set of porphyranase enzymes had been detected, several other marine bacteria were identified as also carrying these enzymes, which was not surprising to researchers. What was surprising was that one of the carriers of this unique set of enzymes was from the human gut, rather than the ocean. The bacterium Bacteroides plebius was the unexpected carrier of an oceanic gene. (2)
Ocean bacteria eat seaweed and teach gut bacteria how - by giving away genes.
The mechanism by which this takes place is fascinating in and of itself: a process known as horizontal or lateral gene transfer enables bacteria to readily pick up and swap genetic information.
This transfer is quite effortless when it happens between bacteria. It's rarer to see it happen, say between human and bacteria genome. But it does happen. Among single-celled organisms, horizontal gene transfer is even considered to be the dominant form of genetic transfer - rather than vertical transfer, which is when genetic code is acquired through inheritance. (3)
Japanese guts are equipped with special enzymatic tools that help to digest seaweed carbohydrates.
Further research includes a study that looked at the gut microbiome of 13 Japanese volunteers and 18 North American volunteers. Seven potential porphyran-digesting enzymes were found in the gut bacteria of the Japanese volunteers while researchers could not find a single similar gene among the North American volunteers.
Another study found that an unweaned infant, who had never eaten a piece of nori in her life, carried gut bacteria with the porphyranase gene. We already know that a newborn receives a significant inoculation of friendly flora during birth through the birth canal. What this studies shows: borrowed genes from environmental microbes may also be passed along with native flora from mother to baby.
If Japanese gut bacteria have the strong evolutionary pressure to keep porphyranase genes in place, this pressure comes from diet.
When a significant amount of carbohydrates and energy come from seaweeds that are generally difficult to digest, these genes are useful and best kept around. The same may also be said of other foodstuffs. Certain bacteria are more adept at pulling nutrients and energy from foods than others, just as one food will encourage the survival of one specific bacterium while another may not.
One very common bacteria found in the gut, E. coli, has acquired 1/8 of its genome through horizontal gene transfer.
Relatively speaking, this percentage is remarkable. Not only that, but E. coli is one of the more social microbes, frequently giving away genes to other bacteria. The phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer means that bacteria are highly adaptable - and accounts for one reason why they so easily acquire resistance to antibiotics. This cross-talk and swap also implies that diet plays a pivotal role in deciding exactly what kind of microbiome your gut harbors.
The standard American diet consists of processed, devitalized foods that have been completely stripped of all bacteria. A large percentage of the typical American diet is convenient, monochrome foods such as bread, pasta, baked goods, grains, and potatoes that consist largely of starches and sugars.
Body Ecology principles discourage this type of diet for several reasons, one being that such a diet feeds pathogenic microbes in the gut. Incorporating fermented foods and probiotic beverages is essential in order to preserve a healthy microbiome. Our bodies are very much like landscapes, and the direction our health takes is not solely dependent on our own genome.
Because our own cells are outnumbered 10 to 1, it is important to remember the constant dialogue that takes place. This dialogue occurs between cells and, we are now finding, even between the DNA of every cell, whether human or not, beneficial or pathogenic. A daily practice that follows Body Ecology principles and that includes fermented foods and beverages is the best way to ensure that your microflora evolve in the best way possible.
WHAT TO REMEMBER MOST ABOUT THIS ARTICLE:
Bacteria found in the gut actually outnumber the cells in the body 10 to 1. Scientists have recently discovered that distinct gut bacteria can also vary depending upon what region of the world that you are from and the types of foods that you eat.
The Japanese digestive system has special enzymes that work to digest seaweed carbohydrates. Unfortunately, these same enzymes are not found in the North American digestive system due to the large amounts of processed foods that we consume in the standard American diet. For the best digestive health, Body Ecology discourages processed foods and encourages boosting your gut health with fermented foods and probiotic beverages. This will ensure that the bacteria in your gut are beneficial to boost your health and strengthen your immune system.
1. O'Hara AM, Shanahan F (July 2006). "The gut flora as a forgotten organ." EMBO REP. 7 (7): 688 - 693.
2. Hehemann, J., Correc, G., Barbeyron, T., Helbert, W., Czjzek, M., & Michel, G. (2010). Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota Nature, 464 (7290), 908-912.
3. "Horizontal Gene Transfer." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizontal_gene_transfer
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