It is often understood that our gut bacteria live off of the foods we eat. However, many gut bacteria can actually metabolize the mucous that protects the lining of our gut. In fact, many bugs have the ability to digest a specific sugar that is attached to our mucins, called sialic acid. Interestingly, some bacteria have the ability to cleave this sugar from the mucins, others have the ability to consume this sugar once it is released, and others have the ability to perform both of these tasks. Last week, a new method for how gut bacteria can transform sialic acid was discovered, that some bacteria can actually transform sialic acid before cleaving it, and that this may be clinically relevant for Crohn’s disease and colitis. The authors published their results in Nature Communications.
The authors were testing a common commensal bacteria, Ruminococcus gnavus, and noted that it had the ability to both cleave and consume sialic acid from gut mucins. When they identified the metabolites from this process they discovered that the sialic acid was actually being converted to a different form by these bugs. After further experimentation they realized that a type of enzyme, called an intramolecular trans sialidase, which had never before been observed in gut bacteria, was responsible. The researchers then compared the genes from R. gnavus to other bugs common in the gut and noted that a full 11% of human gut commensals had this enzyme, and that these bacteria were overrepresented in people with IBD. The authors think that the bugs who code for this enzyme have an inherent advantage over other gut microbiota because after they transform the sialic acid they can still use it for energy, whereas other bugs cannot, leaving the sugar all to themselves.
The paper did not discuss specific mechanisms as to why these bugs may be overrepresented in Crohn’s and colitis. They did however test a few molecules that inhibited the activity of the enzymes. Perhaps if these enzymes or the responsible bugs are the cause of IBD, than these inhibitors could be used as therapeutics to combat the disease.