The human gut contains trillions of microorganisms. In fact, it’s home to 10 times more bacteria than human cells. These residents play a remarkably important role in our body, from boosting our immune system to even affecting our behavior and personality.
Until recently, it remained unclear how these bacteria affect our biology in such a profound way, but researchers are starting to think it could have something to do with a bunch of newly identified proteins that appear to be created by the microbiome.
New research by Stanford University School of Medicine has identified tens of thousands of proteins created by the bacteria that dwell in the mouth, gut, skin, and vagina of humans. As reported in the journal Cell, the new insight could be used to harness the power of the human microbiome, paving the way for new treatments and drugs.
“How do they communicate? How do strains of bacteria protect themselves from other strains? These functions are likely to be found in very small proteins, which may be more likely than larger proteins to be secreted outside the cell.”
Using a new computational approach to sniff out genes, the team managed to detect over 4,000 protein families, the majority of which have never previously been identified before. The proteins have remained unidentified because they are so tiny, fewer than 50 amino acids in length. However, this novel method allowed the team to trawl through the sea of proteins with much greater precision.
While it remains unclear what many of these proteins do, around 30 percent of them are believed to play a role in cell-to-cell communication between bacteria and their hosts. Others are thought to play a role in functions like bacterial warfare or cell maintenance.
The inner workings of the human microbiome and their wider effect on health still elude full understanding, though a mounting heap of evidence is showing that the composition of bacteria in the intestinal tract could have far-reaching effects on your health. In the past few years alone, studies have linking gut flora to Parkinson's disease, autism, schizophrenia, and many more health conditions. As this new study shows, a deeper understanding of the microbiome's tricks could even be used to develop new drugs and treatments.
“Small proteins can be synthesized rapidly and could be used by the bacteria as biological switches to toggle between functional states or to trigger specific reactions in other cells,” Bhatt added. “They are also easier to study and manipulate than larger proteins, which could facilitate drug development. We anticipate this to be a valuable new area of biology for study.”