Harnessing technology to help balance the human microbiome

By: agxio | 16 Jan 2023

There are many benefits of analysing and maintaining a balanced gut microbiome. Here, Daniel O’Neill Agxio’s animal science and genomic researcher discusses the issues around an imbalanced gut microbiome, the wider benefits of balance and how technological advances are helping to achieve it through personalised remedial actions.

The gut microbiome is a crucial part of human health. It is a reservoir of biomarkers that can indicate certain things, such as an individual’s diet, lifestyle and even the presence of disease. It is of increasing medical interest as a range of common diseases have been associated with a disturbed microbiome. By maintaining balance, disease can be avoided and diminished, and other health benefits realised.

The microbiome in detail

All humans have something called a microbiome. In its broadest sense, this describes any or all constituent microbial communities found on or in a human body. These communities are made up of a coalition of organisms including bacteria, which are the most abundant, with fungi, archaea, and viruses among others. Our focus is on the human gut microbiome, with an estimated 10 to 100 trillion microbial cells within the gut.

The gut microbiome comprises the gastrointestinal tract, including the small and large intestine, appendix, and colon. There are many factors which affect the structure and abundance of the microbial constituents and numerous benefits to maintaining a healthy balance within this community, but also many potential negative consequences if imbalances occur.

Benefits of balance

The benefits to keeping a healthy balanced microbiome include reduced intestinal distress, due to less risk and occurrence of inflammatory illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), proper homeostatic control within the intestines, a strong intestinal barrier, optimised immune defence and proper metabolic functions. Other benefits include reduced risk of certain types of cancer development, vitamin production, increased nutrient absorption from food components that are difficult to break down, and improved heart health. All these benefits lend themselves to the overall health and longevity of individuals. But what can go wrong if imbalances dominate the gut microbiome and what factors are important to consider?

Drawbacks of imbalance

An imbalanced gut microbiome can lead to several different maladies. Intestinal afflictions include inflammatory bowel syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and even the development of coeliac disease. Others include asthma and allergy development, incorrect/reduced metabolic functions, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even colorectal cancer. With such potential for imbalance to wreak havoc in humans, it is vital to understand the interactions between the host and the microbes dwelling within.

Controlling a balanced gut microbiome can prove difficult without knowing what can disturb the balance. Disturbance can occur due to many factors, all of which must be accounted for when considering what has led to the imbalance. These include diet, intake of toxic substances, administration of antibiotics and drugs, and the presence of pathogenic microbes/viruses in the gut – this being the most common cause -all of which have potential to cause an upset.

To understand these interactions, the microbes must first be identified. This is where advances in technology are making a big mark.

Identifying and correcting imbalances with advanced analytics

Alongside sampling an individual’s faeces and extracting any DNA present, modern sequencing technologies such as 16S sequencing make it possible to identify microbes down to the genus level – this is the “E” (Escherichia) in E. coli, for example – while also accurately calculating the number of each microbial group, usually as percentages. Results of the sequencing are input into Agxio’s GALEN microbiome analytics engine which holds scientifically backed high, low, and target abundance thresholds for each microbial genus. Depending on which threshold is met, specific remedial action(s) is suggested, where applicable, allowing for individualised nutritional guidance to rectify imbalances within each person’s gut community.

Many datasets are available, and sizes range from the hundreds of samples. With these huge samples sizes and the highly collaborative nature of the field, more meaningful and more accurate insights can be garnered with confidence from these data. Full sample sequencing processing at Agxio is swift with subsequent threshold analysis and report generation using Agxio’s GALEN platform is again more rapid, taking minutes, if not seconds.

Monitoring the human gut microbiome when associated diseases and issues are suspected can have significant positive health benefits. With the addition of GALEN, individuals can pinpoint their specific problems and take appropriate action to alter their diet, reduce disease risk and severity, and improve their health, biological functions, and quality of life by following the suggested remedial actions.

By Daniel O’Neill, Bioscientist at Agxio

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