More precise knowledge of the bacteria in our guts could lead to better-targeted treatments for chronic conditions.
Some 100 trillion bacteria live in our intestines, and their activities are strongly linked to illnesses like heart disease and colon cancer—and are critical in maintaining our general health. Although we know these microbes play an essential role in metabolizing drugs and digesting food, we know relatively little about the chemical transformations they use to get the job done. Learning more about them will be essential to creating new drugs and therapies and shaping dietary guidelines for individual patients.
Emily Balskus, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, uses a variety of approaches, including advanced DNA sequencing, to discover new metabolic pathways and to study how gut bacteria use chemical reactions to survive. In one example of her success, Balskus’s Harvard lab has been credited with uncovering the bacterial enzymes in the human gut that convert the essential nutrient choline to trimethylamine, a metabolite linked to heart disease. Because a majority of choline comes from food, learning more about its relationship to intestinal bacteria could illuminate the link between diet and the risk of heart disease.
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