Web Zap*Germs Archive

May 06, 2005

Are Intestinal Bacteria Making Us Fat?

Could it be that it's not just genes, diet and exercise that determine our amount of body fat? Jeffrey Gordon and Fredrik Backhed -- microbiologists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis -- think so. Their experiments with mice show them that certain types of gut bacteria secrete a chemical that messes with the hormone responsible for fat storage.

Even when fed a "moderate" diet, mice with a normal mix of intestinal bacteria got fat. Gordon and Backhed compared this group with mice raised & kept in a germ-free environment. Despite having a higher-calorie diet than the normal mice, these isolated mice actually had 40+% less fat -- until they were exposed to the gut bacteria found in the fat mice. Then they, too, gained weight.

"Killing off the gut bacteria is not a viable option," concludes an article in Discovery Magazine "it would trigger opportunistic infections long before it would yield meaningful weight loss—but Gordon is targeting the fat-promoting hormone itself in hopes of developing a better diet drug." [More detail on the study is here.]

Dr. Gordon and a team of WU researchers are also using a $1.45 million grant to sequence and analyze the genomes of friendly (probiotic) bacteria that live in human intestines. Says Gordon, "Our objective is to understand how the human body functions as a carefully woven fabric of interacting species. Ultimately, such understanding promises to provide new ways of fortifying health and preventing or treating a variety of diseases both inside and outside of the gastrointestinal tract."


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