Tuesday, May 14, 2013

No need to oversell the human microbiome with studies like these ...

I know I complain all the time about news stories and people "overselling the microbiome".  Mind you, I believe microbial communities are likely to be found to have very very important roles in the biology of the plants and animals and other organisms on which they live, but I worry about overhyping the possibilities.  But thankfully, there are some good researchers at work out there documenting just what the microbiome can and does do.  And the results continue to be promising.

Here is the one that caught my eye most recently: BBC News - 'Weight loss gut bacterium' found about this PNAS paper.  While the study is in mice and it is what one could call "limited" in some ways, it is really fascinating and has much promise.  Basically, they isolated a new bacterium (with the awkward name of Akkermansia muciniphila, and did a series of experiments in mice looking at the role this bacterium can play in many mouse gut properties.  But most interesting, treatment of mice with this bacterium (and only when the bacterium was alive) led to a reduction in high fat induced metabolic disorders and obesity.  I am still re-reading the paper but the result seems solid.  And exciting.

So - there is no need to oversell the microbiome when the results coming in sell themselves ...

UPDATE 30 minutes after posting

Of course, I should have checked to see if Ed Yong wrote anything about this.  And he did: The Mucus-Lover that Stops Mice from Getting Fat.  Read his post.  It is excellent.  With ALL sorts of links and background and other detail.


  1. Excellent post, Jonathan! I am not working on Akkermansia myself but clearly this is a very member of the gut microbiota.

    Just two minor additions:
    The bacterium has not been isolated in this study. The first description of Akkermansia muciniphila was published almost a decade ago by the group of De Vos in Wageningen (they are also involved in the current PNAS study): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15388697
    Then onto the name. I don't think Akkermansia muciniphila is difficult to pronounce (but I'm Dutch, so the double "k" doesn't look as weird to me as it could to non-Dutch speakers). Compared to Listeria monocytogenes or Caldicellulosiruptor saccharolyticus, I guess A. muciniphila is not difficult to pronounce and "muciniphila" ("loving mucus") is exactly what it does. Akkermansia refers to the Dutch microbiologist Antoon Akkermans (1941 - 2006) who greatly advanced the field of microbial ecology in The Netherlands. Akkermans was an inspiring figure and I am happy to see his memory being kept alive in the form of this genus name.

    1. I guess that makes more sense than my initial idea that many somebody named a bacterium after Forrest Ackermann, the late science fiction enthusiast who coined the term "sci-fi".


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