The article on “Probiotics modulation of mammalian metabolism” published this week in Molecular Systems Biology by Jeremy Nicholson and colleagues (Martin at al, 2008) has attracted some attention (read the nice summary in Science News) in some (very) popular media (here, here, here and here).
In this follow-up study of the paper published last year (Martin et al, 2007), the team lead by Jeremy Nicholson, in collaboration with Nestlé, demonstrates clear physiological effects of oral probiotics administration on mice harbouring a humanized microbiome. The effects are intricate: both the host flora and metabolism are altered. By analyzing metabolite pools in several compartments (liver, blood, urine, feces, gut), and following in parallel the host microbiota, patterns of correlations between microbial species and metabolites start to be visible and reveal the probiotics-induced modulation of the microbial-mammalian interactions. But the actual paper is really just next door (synopsis), so have a look…
How will these results translate to humans? What will be the best way to influence our microbiome? Drugs or yoghurt? These are fascinating questions and the understanding of how our physiology depends on the microbial flora could have profound consequences, particularly in these times when we seem to be in a “rush to gene-based solutions to all our problems” (Wilson, 2007). Will personal genomics have to ultimately develop into personal metagenomics to include our “extended” microbial genome?
Even if I usually prefer to resist the temptation of a self-promoting section in this blog, I find the attention of the media for this topic interesting (despite the usual variable accuracy of newspaper reports) because it points to an area where systems biology provides insights into topics of immediate interest to the general public.
The NIH has recently started its Human Microbiome Project. In this context, this study also underscores the importance of developing model systems and tools to manipulate the microbiome and to analyze the incredibly dense and intricate interactions that connect host and microbial species. A field where top-down systems biology seems indeed a very pragmatic and promising approach.