We tend to love our space captains and put them in high regard. Fictionally speaking, some of the most memorable characters have been captains, such as Kirk, Solo, Reynolds, and Starbuck. The one trait all of these individuals possess is the ability to guide and lead an entire crew to follow an order and as one famous captain said, "Make it so." But more importantly, these captains must scan the galaxies and upon contact with an alien entity decide whether it is an ally worthy of a coalition or an enemy in need of a war.
Perhaps not ironically, a similar captain exists in the galaxy of our gut although the effects are quite real and can lead to some drastic consequences.
Over the last two decades, a great deal of research has focused on a one particular molecule in the gut, known as the Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptor Gamma, or thankfully, shortened to PPARG, pronounced similarly to another great Captain, Picard. The molecule is found in the nucleus of the cell -- akin to the bridge of a starship and directs the cells to perform any number of different biological activities. But while its homonymous namesake requires, "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot," as a function stimulus, PPARG prefers lipids, particularly linoleic acid and prostaglandins to give it a kick.
PPARG is mainly in adipose (fat) tissue and is primarily responsible for the creation of fat cells. But over the years, PPARG has been found in several other places of the body, including the kidney, liver, and the immune cells of the gut. With each new discovery of the captain came another possible role in health. Problems with the proper functioning of PPARG have now been implicated in chronic health problems such as inflammation, diabetes, atherosclerosis, hypertension and even cancer. Yet the most incredible link between this captain and our day to day health has only recently been revealed.
In 2001, the focus turned to the gastrointestinal tract and the contribution of PPARG to several diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The data revealed that the actions of the captain, or more specifically a lack thereof, led to problems. What was perhaps even more amazing was that feeding the captain with its favorite lipids sent the body into calm with reduced inflammation and pain.
Since the primary living organisms in the gut are germs, a Korean group took the evidence a little further to see if germs could play a role in activating or annoying the captain. Sure enough, there was a definite link and not surprisingly, there was one group of bacteria that showed they were the best allies of the captain.
Since that landmark discovery, the research has taken off and the link between PPARG and other gastrointestinal problems, including infection by Clostridium difficile have been identified. Not surprisingly, in the fight against infection, the use of probiotics offers help to the immune system and helps to prevent the potentially deadly bacterium from taking hold. But it wasn't until this year when the reason behind the benefit of probiotics was eventually found. A group at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute published a paper revealing probiotics produce en masse PPARG's version of the best Earl Grey Tea around, conjugated linoleic acid.
With this in mind, one can now appreciate how some of the more recent research regarding probiotics has been nothing but supportive. Probiotics have been shown to be effective against colitis as well as IBD. And just recently, a study out of the Hospital for Sick Children revealed that probiotics were good in preventing C. difficile-associated diarrhea. It will be only a matter of time before regulatory agencies such as Health Canada allow health claims for these bacteria. While the captain may never get the official credit, all of these studies have in part shown that keeping PPARG present and happy is the key to keeping a healthy gut and better life.
There is one more piece to the puzzle in the PPARG story. Much like Picard, who continually needed his tea in regular and large quantities, the amount of probiotics required to keep PPARG working at its best may also need to be high and continuous. For example, in the Sick Kids article, the number of probiotics used never fell below 10-billion bacteria per dose. That's upwards of 10 times the number in the usual yogurt. Whether or not this high amount is needed for each and every person still needs to be revealed but there is little doubt that when it comes to keeping the captain happy, more is definitely better.
As with any space adventure, no one captain can lead a universe and PPARG is only one captain in a fleet of health contributors. Yet, there can be little doubt that while this molecule may not be heading the flagship of overall health, its contributions have been duly noted and will be a focus for our observations and research into the future. With any luck, we may be able to harness the combined effects of the captain and probiotics to create a harmonious and peaceful gut and keep at least one part of our bodies regularly healthy.
Now that would be boldly going where no one has gone before.