Forgot single species. Microbial teamwork is even more important for our health.

Microbes work in teams to perform different functions. No single bacterium can take credit for our gut health. Now, a new study reveals just how essential teamwork inside our gut really is. 

By Tea Vuckovic

A metabolically active microbiome is essential for our health. We rely on a healthy and balanced microbial composition to ensure proper digestive function, orchestrate our immune system, fight pathogenic microbes and makes energy for our cells. Our microbiota is remarkably mouldable. Throughout the years, our diet and lifestyle, as well as medical prescriptions, can all affect its composition. Previously studies have been rather complicated. Luckily, with science continually evolving, we’ve been able to decipher just how gut microbiota really is. Particularly with the vast improvements in DNA sequencing, we have been able to figure out the species in our gut, their function and even the effects they have on us. Now, researchers have highlighted how, instead of focusing purely on taxonomy, delving deeper into our microbial metabolic potential may generate more upside – therapeutically and otherwise. 

We all share microbial metabolic pathways

In this latest study, researchers used whole-metagenome shotgun sequencing data from 1,004 twins. Identifying the composition and metabolic potential of the microbial community, they found that the most abundant species found in the study were Subdoligranulumgenus (unclassified species), Ruminococcus obeum, Ruminococcus torques, and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, which appeared in 98% of the samples.

Unrelated individuals share only 43% of microbial species, whilst 82% of metabolic pathways are the same.

What’s more, they determined that unrelated individuals share only 43% of microbial species, whilst 82% of metabolic pathways are the same. Compared to our composition, we largely share microbial pathways. 

Fecal metabolites are strongly linked to our microbiome

Researchers used fecal samples to establish associations of the microbial species’ at the functional level. The composition of the gut and metabolic function were connected to fecal metabolic content. Results showed that 95% of the fecal metabolites were linked to the gut microbiota. Besides contributing to the biosynthesis of Vitamin B, the gut microbiome is also involved in its degradation. Furthermore, our gut microbiota metabolizes drugs, which can thus eventually affect the composition and the metabolic activity of the gut microbiota.

Microbiome linked to blood metabolites

Our microbiome links up with blood metabolites, too. Namely, the species’ showing the largest number of associations with blood metabolites were Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus fermentum. Nearly half of the blood metabolites have links with microbial species and/or metabolic pathways. 34% of the species and 86% of the pathways were associated with 24% and 33% of the metabolites, respectively. Even though previous studies observed that host genetics influence 72% of blood metabolites, the gut microbiome may play a role in the systematic metabolism that is independent of the individual’s genome.

Teamwork is important

The study mentions a few key species, nevertheless microbial functions mainly had an association with fecal and blood metabolic profiles. The team observed seven times more associations between metabolites and microbial metabolic pathways than with certain species.

Ultimately, these results support suggestions that looking at functions rather than taxonomy alone can give us a better appreciation of our gut microbiome’s true metabolic activity.


Visconti, A., et al. (2019). Interplay between the human gut microbiome and host metabolism. Nature Communications, 10(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12476-z


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