Microbiome Diversity Is Influenced by Chance Encounters; Study Finds Role for Randomness in Composition of Gut’s Microbe Populations

Within the human digestive tract, there are trillions of bacteria, and these communities contain hundreds or even thousands of species. The makeup of those populations can vary greatly from one person to another, depending on factors such as diet, environmental exposure, and health history. A new study of the microbe populations of worms offers another factor that may contribute to this variation: chance. MIT researchers found that when they put genetically identical worms into identical environments and fed them the same diet, the worms developed very different populations of bacteria in their gut, depending on which bacteria happened to make it there first. “This study shows that you can have heterogeneity that’s driven by the randomness of the initial colonization event. That’s not to say the heterogeneity between any two individuals has to be driven by that, but it’s a potential source that is often neglected when thinking about this variation,” says Jeff Gore, Ph.D., the Latham Family Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT. Dr. Gore is the senior author of the study, which was published online on March 3, 2017 in PLOS Biology. The paper’s lead author is MIT postdoc Dr. Nicole Vega. The open-access article is titled “Stochastic Assembly Produces Heterogeneous Communities in the Caenorhabditis elegans Intestine.” Variations in the human gut microbiome have been shown to contribute to gastrointestinal disorders such as colitis and Crohn’s disease, and studies suggest that microbiome composition can also influence diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
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