SCFA

Short-chain fatty acids and their effect on dendritic cells

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) are metabolites produced from microbiota fermentation.  SCFAs have been subject to extensive investigation in attempts to delineate the pathways and mechanisms that underlie health outcomes from a species-host relationship.  Many have investigated the role of SCFAs in intestinal pathways or intestinal dysbiosis-driven disease (e.g. liver disease), but little is known as to how these metabolites interact with biological components of the immune system and blood stream.  Specifically, it is important to learn about this as some immune cells, such as dendritic cells (DC), patrol the blood stream to sense and respond to bacterial metabolites and present these pathogens to other immune cells in the lymph nodes.  To investigate further, a European conglomerate of researchers examined the interaction between SCFAs and DCs at the molecular level.

PCR was first performed on human-derived DCs to characterize protein expression patterns of SCFA receptors on these cells, as SCFAs are postulated to be ligands for G-coupled protein receptors (supported by the PCR).  Next, still using human-derived DCs the researchers determined that individual SCFAs were shown to have different effects, more so on mature DCs.  Butyrate and propionate in particular strongly modulated gene expression in both immature and mature human DCs.  The researchers next conducted an ingenuity pathway analysis based on differential gene expression which determined that propionate and butyrate modulate leukocyte (white blood cell) trafficking.  On top of this, SCFA significantly tempered release of an array of pro-inflammatory cytokines.  Lastly, butyrate and propionate were shown to inhibit the expression of lipopolysaccharide-induced cytokines to support a strong anti-inflammatory effect.

Together, these results suggest that metabolites derived from microbiota fermentation and metabolism and differentially modulate inflammatory response by way of dendritic cell interaction.  These findings illustrate another key component to the host-species relationship, and provide more evidence as to the scale and important of a healthy synergistic relationship between host and microbiome as the interactions are involved in disease-prone pathways that require careful molecular regulation (e.g. inflammation and immunity).  This in vitro study was a good first step in this investigation.  

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Helminths suppress the immune system by modulating the gut microbiota

The nematode  Heligmosomoides polygyrus , which was used in this study, seen into an optical microscope. Taken from the digestive tractus of a rodent.

The nematode Heligmosomoides polygyrus, which was used in this study, seen into an optical microscope. Taken from the digestive tractus of a rodent.

Helminths, or gut worms, are known to be powerful suppressants of the immune system.  In fact, this is the basis for using helminth therapy for various autoimmune conditions, such as IBD.  Still though, the mechanisms for helminth immunosuppression is unknown.  There have been some studies that suggest the worms are secreting molecules that have this anti-inflammatory effect, but this may not tell the whole story.  Researchers from Switzerland hypothesized that because helminths and our gut bacteria evolved together, it was likely that the helminths were modulating the bacterial gut microbiome, and that this modulation was anti-inflammatory.  They tested and published results that support this idea in the latest issue of Cell Immunity.

The scientists started by showing the efficacy of a mouse helminth, Heligmosomoides polygyrus bakeri (Hpb), in reducing inflammation in mouse models of asthma.  The scientists infected mice with the parasite and exposed those mice, along with non-infected control mice, to dust mites in order to elicit and immune response.  The scientists observed that the Hpb mice had much lower circulating levels of specific cytokines and immune cells after exposure to dust mites than the controls.  Next, the scientist gave the Hpb infected mice antibiotics, which eliminated the gut bacteria but left the helminths intact.  They then exposed these mice and control mice to dust mites to elicit the immune response.  Interestingly, while the helminths alone did decrease the levels of some inflammatory molecules and cells, inflammation still occurred, similar to what was observed in controls.  This meant that the gut bacteria play a role in modulating the helminthic immune suppression.  In order to validate these findings, the scientists then performed fecal microbiota transplants from control mice or helminth infected mice into germ free mice (with no worms).  After, the challenged these mice with house dust mites and discovered that the gut bacteria alone created an immune suppression in the mice, even in the absence of the worms.

The researchers attempted to identify which bacteria may be causing this immune suppression, and measured the microbiomes of the mice.  They noted that higher levels of Clostridiales occurred in the Hpb mice.  They then measured the levels of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the mice’s guts, because Clostridiales are known to produce SCFAs.  They noticed that higher levels of SCFAs, which have previously been linked to immune suppression, did occur in higher levels in mice with Hpb compared to controls.  The scientists then studied this connection between worm infection and increase in SCFAs in pigs and humans.  Remarkably, the increase in SCFAs in helminth-infected subjects compared to controls was observed across species, suggesting the immune suppressing helminth phenomenon is extensible to many mammals.  The researchers even investigated possible mechanisms for why SCFAs were able to suppress the immune system.  They discovered the SCFAs were binding specific receptors that modulate T-cells, and more depth on this issue can be found by reading the paper. 

This study is quite important as it shows that helminths in combination with the bacterial microbiome are important to immune suppression.  This suggests that future therapeutics that may take advantage of helminth-derived molecules may not be as effective.  It does, however, support helminth therapy as an immune suppressant.  However, helminths are also very dangerous and can lead to various diseases.   So, while clinical trials that use helminths are underway, there are still no approved uses for worms.  

Please email blog@MicrobiomeInstitute.org for any comments, news, or ideas for new blog posts.

The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Short chain fatty acid composition in the gut is associated with Hirschsprung associated enterocolitis

Ball and stick representation of an acetate molecule, CH3COO-

Ball and stick representation of an acetate molecule, CH3COO-

Hirschsprung disease is a disorder in which a baby is born without nerves in part or all of the large intestines, rendering them functionless. Hirschsprung-associated enterocolitis (HAEC) is a complication of Hirschsprung disease (HD), in which the intestines become inflamed due to infection. HAEC is a common cause of death in children with Hirschsprung disease, but the real cause of infection in not very well understood yet. Poor immunity, poor intestinal wall function, and an altered gut microbiome are thought to contribute to the issue. An important role of the gut microbiome is to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) from complex and indigestible fiber. The short chain fatty acids contribute to bacterial homeostasis of the gut, and so they may be associated with intestinal issues observed in HAEC. Scientists from California, Michigan, and Sweden set out to test this possible connection by measuring the SCFA, and SCFA-producing bacterial composition in HD children who have HAEC.  The study was published by the Journal of Pediatric Surgery

The study population consisted of 18 children with HD, with ages ranging from 3 months to 8 years, and a median age of 2.7 years. Nine participants had a history of HAEC, while nine did not. Fecal samples were collected from the children and analyzed for SCFAs and bacterial composition. Among the children involved in the study, there were no significant differences in early feeding type, probiotic use, complications unrelated to HAEC, and length of HD diagnosis. One patient in the HD group and two in the HAEC group had trisomy 21, better known as Down Syndrome.

Total fecal SCFA composition in children with a history of HAEC was four-fold lower than that of HD patients who did not have a history of HAEC.  When broken into individual SCFAs, the children with HAEC had substantially less acetate in their stools, but actually slightly higher butyrate levels compared to non-HAEC.  Interestingly, the HAEC patients actually had higher levels of butyrate and acetate producing bacteria, despite the dramatically lower acetate levels.  The authors suggest that perhaps the butyrate producing bacteria are actually converting acetate to butyrate, resulting in higher levels of both butyrate and butyrate producing bacteria, along with lower levels of acetate.

While we still don’t know a cause for Hirschsprung-associated enterocolitis, this study does provide an association between HAEC episodes and alteration of short chain fatty acid composition of the large intestines. This study is limited by its small sample size and other factors that are difficult to account for, but the results still do help scientists identify possible causes of the disease.

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Atopic dermatitis associated gut microbe identified

A moderate case of hand dermatitis

A moderate case of hand dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis, otherwise known as eczema, is an inflammatory autoimmune response of the skin.  Today in the United States it affects around 25% of children, and as many as 3% of adults, with its incidences increasing each year.  Like many other allergies, the microbiome is now being implicated in the cause of this disease.  A few months back evidence was published linking atopic dermatitis to the skin bacteria Staphylococcus aureus.  Other work, however, has shown that the gut microbiome may be critically important to this disease as well, especially because gut bacteria are more likely to control and elicit certain inflammatory responses seen in dermatitis, such as the release of specific cytokines.  A group of Korea recently compared the gut bacteria in atopic dermatitis patients and healthy controls and identified a specific organism that may be important to the disease.  They published their results last week in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

The researchers measured the gut microbiomes of 132 people, including 90 of which had atopic dermatitis and were seeking medical treatment.  They also measured gene expression by bacteria in the gut, and short chained fatty acids (SCFAs) in the guts of all the individuals.  They discovered that one particular bacterial species was much more abundant in dermatitis patients compared to controls, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii.  After, they measured SCFA production, and noted that a decrease in butyrate and propionate was directly linked with the presence of F. prausnitzii, suggesting an important link between this bug, SCFAs, and the disease state. In addition, they noted that the overall diversity of bacteria was similar in all microbiomes measured.  Finally, the scientists investigated the gene expression, and observed an increase in bacteria that are capable of breaking down gut mucins, or mucous, in the guts of atopic dermatitis individuals.  For example, these bugs were expressing proteins that break down fucose and N-acetylgalactosamine (GalNAc), two monosaccharides that are normally derived from mucins rather than food.

This study presents a number of differences in the gut microbiomes of individuals with an without atopic dermatitis.  The scientists suggest that an important species associated with this disease may be F. prausnitzii, and perhaps it may even be influencing the disease through a lack of SCFA production, and the breakdown of gut mucins.  Atopic dermatitis is a complex disease, and certainly cannot be explained by the presence of an individual bug.  However, this paper does support the notion that diseased individuals, who present rashes on their skin, may have disruptions to gut, and that changes in the gut microenvironment create a niche for specific bacteria to grow.  This, in turn, may inform new therapeutic strategies that target the gut microbiome, rather than topical treatments.

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Eating more vegetables appears to improve microbiome-mediated health indicators

There are many diets that have been rigorously shown to decrease metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, etc.) and are generally associated with a healthy lifestyle, such as vegetarian, vegan, and Mediterranean diets.  The one thing they share in common is a high consumption of plant material, and a low consumption of meat.  There are mechanistic reasons for why high veggie - low fat diets should improve health, and many researchers now believe this is partly due to the gut microbiome that these diets create.  In order to help demonstrate the microbiome-mediated health benefits of a high vegetable – low meat diet, a team of researchers from Italy recently measured the microbiome and specific metabolites produced by the microbiome in 153 individuals.  They then compared these results with the diet that the individual had consumed prior to the measurements, and confirmed that these ‘healthy’ diets were creating ‘healthy’ microbiomes.  They published their results in the journal Gut.

The scientists asked 51 vegans, 51 vegetarians, and 51 ominivores individuals to self-declare their eating habits over the past seven days, and then sampled their stool and urine for bacteria and metabolites.  They learned that amongst the different types of diet the individuals’ overall microbiome diversities were relatively similar.  However, they did show that Bacteroidetes were more prevalent in vegetarians and vegans than in ominvores, and that a higher Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio existed in the guts of ominvores than in vegans and vegetarians.  In addition, the abundance of Prevotella, which is normally associated with health, was positively correlated with overall vegetable intake, and on the contrary Ruminococcus was negatively associated with a high vegetable diet.

The scientists also measured specific metabolites in the individuals.  They discovered that short chained fatty acids (SCFAs), which are normally implicated with health, were associated with the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and legumes.  In addition, there were positive associations between SCFAs and specific populations of bacteria, such as Prevotella.  On the other hand, the metabolite trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), which is a microbiome metabolite whose concentration is directly related to atherosclerosis and other diseases, was significantly lower in vegetarian and vegan diets compared to omnivore diets. It was also directly associated with the abundance of the aforementioned Ruminococcus

These relationships between SCFAs and veggies are unsurprising, because SCFAs are the byproducts of bacteria breaking down the complex glycans found in fiber.  In addition, the TMAO is produced by gut bacteria from carnitine and choline, two molecules that exist in red meat and eggs, among other things.  Regardless though, this study should remind us that our diet can shape our microbiome and have lasting health effects.  This study only reinforces that a diet high in veggies that feeds the microbiome is probably a healthy choice.

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Fish oil may be important to altering the microbiome, reducing anxiety

Last week we published a blog on the gut-brain axis, and the various associations between brain health and the gut microbiome.  One of the ailments we discussed was depression, which is often studied in mice by inducing early life stress on the mice.  One way to do this is by separating mice from their mothers for hours at a time at a young age.  The Maternal Separation model, as it is known, causes stress and anxiety in these mice, but more importantly, research has shown that it creates a dysbiosis of their gut microbiomes as well.  Many scientists believe the dysbiosis may be implicated in causing some of the stress phenotypes, and so reversing this dysbiosis could have therapeutic value.  Researchers from the University College Cork, in Cork Ireland, experimented with N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), like those found in fish oil, in these maternally separated mice, and found they may be important to preventing the dysbiosis.  They published their findings in the journal PLoS ONE.

In the study, the researchers separated mice into two groups, one underwent maternal separation, and the other had a normal upbringing.  Within each group the mice were separated into two more groups, one that received fish oil supplements and the other that didn’t.  Over the course of 17 weeks each groups’ feces were sampled for their microbiomes.  The Maternal separation tended to decrease the bacteroidetes to firmicutes ratio of the mice’s microbiome, which has previously been linked to depression in humans.  Interestingly, supplementation with the fish oil increased this ratio in those maternally separated mice.  In addition, the fish oil also increased the concentration of bacteria that were higher in non-separated mice, such as populations of Rikenella.  Finally, the fish oil increased the amount of butyrate producing bacteria, and as we have seen many times before, butyrate and other short chained fatty acids (SCFAs) are often associated with health.

Overall this study showed that fish oil shifted stressed mice’s microbiome to a more natural state, presumably helping them in the process.  While the scientists did not directly measure stress levels in these mice to support the microbiome connection, hopefully that will be part of a follow up study.  The scientists noted that fish oil is clinically shown to reduce inflammation, and made it a point to connect the stress in the mice to systemic inflammation.  Systemic inflammation is also mediated by the microbiome.  Indeed, people that have inflammation from IBD, for example, do tend to have more stress and anxiety.  In the end, fish oil could make for an interesting prebiotic to shift the microbiome, counteract inflammation, and improve mental health. 

Please email blog@MicrobiomeInstitute.org for any comments, news, or ideas for new blog posts.

The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.