Keith Nunes

It was 10 years ago the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project, an endeavor to understand how microbial bacteria in the digestive tract, airways, on the skin and in other parts of the human body interact. Findings from the project make it clear that unlocking the secrets of the microbiome, particularly in the digestive tract, holds considerable potential for disease mitigation and may point to a path for diet, food product and ingredient innovation.

The Human Microbiome Project is the result of technologic advances in DNA sequencing and the emergence of a field of research called metagenomics. Metagenomics gives researchers the ability to study microbial communities without the need for cultivation outside the host in a laboratory. Rather, microbial communities are sampled and studied from their natural environments.

In the digestive tract, the microbiome plays a central role in how nutrients and vitamins are absorbed by the body. Research also shows it may affect an individual’s overall metabolism and immune function. Microbial imbalance in the gut may be linked to several chronic conditions. The balance of the microflora in the digestive tract may also factor in the development of allergies in children and adults.

Human microbiome
In the digestive tract, the microbiome plays a central role in how nutrients and vitamins are absorbed by the body.

The development, commercialization and increased popularity of probiotics and prebiotics are in large measure a result of what researchers have learned over the years about the microbiome. Still, the use of probiotics and prebiotics to influence gut microflora may be in the earliest stages with regards to the potential for the microbiome to enhance overall health.

In the marketplace, many companies are investing to capitalize on the research into the microbiome. DuPont Nutrition & Health, Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, recently created the Microbiome Venture to lead the development of new microbiome science-based solutions, according to the company. Through the venture, the company will find partners in academia, industry and science to accelerate product development.

DuPont’s first partnership through the venture is with the APC Microbiome Institute in Cork, Ireland. Research and development through the partnership will focus on infant development and long-term health.

Viome, New York, launched what the company is calling a “state-of-the-art wellness service” that provides in-depth analysis of an individual’s gut and metabolic health. Subscribers to the service receive home testing kits for the analysis of their metabolic and gut intelligence.

The metabolic component of the service determines a user’s optimal diet and provides specific recommendations the company says will elevate a person’s energy and enhance their well-being. The gut portion of the program assesses the composition of the microbes in the gut with the goal of reducing chronic inflammation and maintaining levels of beneficial bacteria.

In April 2003, the full sequence of the human genome was completed and published, the product of the Human Genome Project. The effort and its subsequent results have been hailed as a significant scientific breakthrough that has led the development of new therapies and medications. The Human Microbiome Project also has great potential and may one day bring into stark focus the impact of diet on overall health and wellness.