The era of –biotics

María Ángeles Núñez Sánchez, Centre for Research in Vascular
Did you know that each of us has a complex community of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) called “microbiota” that live inside our gut? I discovered this during my PhD, this sparked my interest and I quickly began learning about this new-ish research area that has emerged over the last decades. In 2017, I joined the APC Microbiome Ireland team to do a postdoc to investigate the effect of secondary bile acids on gut maturation during the first stages of life. APC Microbiome is a diverse cross-disciplinary leading research centre to explore the microbiome’s role on the interface of health, medicine and food.
Today, it is well known that our microbiota has key functions in our body including the development of the immune system, metabolisms and maturation of the intestinal tract. As a result, the maintenance of an adequate gut microbiota is fundamental in the maintenance of those beneficial effects. More and more research has focused on finding strategies to manipulate the gut microbiota to maximize the beneficial health effects for humans.
One way to help our microbiota to maintain “healthy” is through the consumption of prebiotics (nutrients like fibres that help the growth of beneficial bacteria) and probiotics (“live microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host1). It is important to highlight that the microbial composition is like a fingerprint meaning that it is unique for each individual. This means that individuals will benefit differentially from these –biotics.
There is great variability in the gut microbiota profile between individuals – each person’s microbiota is like their fingerprint – unique to them. It is therefore logical to think that after the consumption of certain foods or medicines, not all individuals produce the same compounds and therefore the benefit will be different between individuals. For example, the consumption of soybeans has been largely associated with health benefits. Soybeans are rich in daidzein, a polyphenol that is used by gut microbiota to produce equol. This compound is a postbiotic that has several beneficial health effects such as antioxidant activity. However, dietary intervention studies have shown that not everyone is able to produce this compound. This means that it doesn’t matter how much soybeans they eat – they are deprived of the possible health benefits of this secondary metabolite2,3.

What are postbiotics?

In recent years, research on microbiota has led to an increasing interest on the so-called postbiotics. Postbiotics, also known as secondary metabolites, can be defined as compounds produced by gut bacteria that have beneficial effects on our health4. Basically, it refers to bacterial “waste” that surprisingly have a beneficial effect on our health. Some of the most well-known postbiotics include short-chain fatty acids (butyric acid or acetic acid among others), vitamins, aminoacids, urolithins or equol. Several trials both in vitro (using cells) and in vivo (using animal models) have described the beneficial effects of these compounds such as maintenance of the gastrointestinal tract health, anti-inflammatory properties or protection against pathogens (bacteriocins).

To summarise: prebiotics, feed probiotics that produce postbiotics.

There is a lack of sufficient numbers of intervention studies to evaluate health benefits and safety the promising use of postbiotics as strategy to improve host health has led to increased research on the mechanisms of action. Advances in gut microbiota research could contribute significantly to allowing us to in the future design personalized recommendations in order to maximize the beneficial effects of these compounds.
I was awarded in 2018 with a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellow and I was recently nominated by the EUs MSCA programme to attend the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate interdisciplinary meeting that is convened every 5 years. This complements the annual meetings that alternately focus on physiology and medicine, on physics, and on chemistry – the three natural science Nobel Prize disciplines. The event links 30-40 Nobel Laureates with the next generation of leading scientists and economists. It is a great honour to be one of 600 selected to participate in the exciting interactive exchange among scientists of different generations, cultures, and disciplines from all over the world.
The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings foster the exchange among scientists of different generations, cultures, and disciplines. The scientific programme of each Lindau Meeting is based on the principle of dialogue. Due to COVID 19, the physical meeting was postponed to next year. Instead, from 28 June – 1 July, we will gather online, for a digital discussion on a variety of topics between 39 Nobel Laureates, excellent young scientists and senior experts in different sessions. Over the course of four days, the Online Science Days promise a packed programme with topics that range from international collaboration to COVID-19, from green chemistry to communicating climate change, and from women in science to the Lindau Guidelines. But the dialogues have already begun as I participated in the Lindau first Online Sciathon. 48 groups were working on their projects during 48 hours. You can use the hashtag #Sciathon you can find a lot of posts concerning these 48 hours on social media. Or you can find out more here: sciathon.org.
I am excited to participate actively in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Online Science meetings (28 June – 1 July) and also in the oficial physical meeting next year!

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