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The Fecal Bacterium You'll Learn to Love

04/26/2015 10:54 EDT | Updated 06/26/2015 05:59 EDT
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We tend to disregard feces as an inevitable part of our normal daily existence. We feel the push, head to the toilet, conduct our business and eventually send the smelly stuff into the sewers. But within that mass of waste is a species of bacteria that may one day be able to help prevent inflammatory disorders including colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and possibly even Crohn's disease. It's known as Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and has the potential to become one of the next generation probiotics.

The species was discovered back in 1922 by a German researcher, Carl Prausnitz, after whom it is named. It can be found in the fecal matter of all animals not just humans. It resides in areas of the large intestines where there is no oxygen. It chooses this place out of necessity; to it, oxygen is extremely toxic. Without some form of antioxidant offering assistance it simply cannot survive.

For decades, the species was given little to no attention in terms of human health. It was simply considered to be a member of the usual gut population residing in the intestines. But about 10 years ago, at the time when researchers had the ability to identify the entire microbial population of the gut, the potential importance of this species to human health began to surface.

The first sign of importance came in the analysis of patients suffering from Crohn's disease. The levels of this particular bacterium were significantly lower than that of healthy individuals. When researchers tested the effects of the bacterium in the lab and also in mice, they found both the bacterium as well as any liquid in which it grew reduced the severity of symptoms. There seemed to be an anti-inflammatory effect in which the immune system was rendered calm. A further test on human blood samples revealed the same reduction in inflammation.

The results sparked a hunt for any other associations between a loss of this bacterium in the gut and other inflammatory diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and colitis. Sure enough, a similar trend was seen. When people suffered, the levels of this bacterium were low. The idea of using this species as a possible probiotic treatment appeared to be not only plausible but also well worth further investigations. But before anyone could come up with a probiotic supplement, there was one issue that had to be resolved. Researchers had to figure out how a bacterium held within the dark confines of the large intestine with little chance of survival anywhere else had such an incredible effect on immunity.

Last week, a team of French researchers provided some clues as to how the bacterium accomplishes this feat. Based on their studies in mice, the group discovered the bacterium has the ability to send signals not only in the local environment, but also into the blood to affect the entire immune system. Even more intriguing was the involvement of a common chemical used to treat acne in increasing the overall anti-inflammatory benefit.

The process of testing was relatively straightforward. The team used mice whose microbial populations were known and did not include F. prausnitzii. At this point, they chose one group to be given the bacterium while the other went without. After the microbes had settled in, the next phase of testing could begin. The mice were given a chemical known to cause colitis.

As the mice dealt with the condition, those that had the bacterium appeared to have less symptoms. As the researchers investigated further, they found several different types of molecules were produced leading to the prevention of symptoms. Some were well-known such as a molecule called butyrate, which is a byproduct of fibre digestion. Others were surprising, including a regulator of blood glucose, a precursor for the production of various molecules including amino acids, and salicylic acid. The latter is usually used to combat acne as it helps to remove dead skin from the surface. In this case, however, it had dramatic anti-inflammatory activity and was considered to be the best of the four chemicals at keeping inflammation at bay.

The team looked not only at the intestines but also the blood to see if they could find any signs of systemic anti-inflammatory activity. Once again, they were able to see the effects as the levels of inflammation were reduced to normal. Although the chemical had induced a local effect, the bacterium was able to prevent the problems from going systemic.

The results of the study clearly revealed the effect of the bacteria on inflammation, at least in the mouse. The authors suggested the species could potentially be used as a form of personalized medicine to help combat inflammation and possibly temper the problems related to various gastrointestinal diseases. As for becoming a probiotic, there is still much further to go although the results put this species at the head of the line.

Until research catches up to the microbes, the best way to take advantage of F. prausnitzii at home is to keep them happy in the gut. Every one of us carries the bacterium and can foster its growth through the use of prebiotics. These non-digestible sugars act as fantastic food for the bacteria and help to increase its numbers and ultimately, improve our health.

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