More than gut feel: Scientists to study stomach microbes

T V Jayan New Delhi | Updated on January 12, 2018

₹150-crore study will cover 20,000 people across ethnic groups

Indian scientists are embarking on a massive programme to map bugs in the Indian gut in an attempt to understand how they influence physical well-being and immunity in people belonging to various communities.

The study will be conducted over the next five years by researchers from several institutions, mainly the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

The project involves collecting saliva, stool and skin swabs of 20,000 Indians across 6,000 ethnic groups hailing from various geographical regions, and analysing them to unravel micro-organisms in the stomach, according to Shekhar C Mande, Director, National Centre for Cell Sciences (NCCS), Pune.

Gut microbes have been found to contribute to many aspects of our health, from digesting food to beefing up the immune system.

The project, expected to cost ₹150 crore, was launched at the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD) in Imphal on June 2. In the pilot phase, IBSD scientists, along with their counterparts from NCCS and the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) in Kalyani (near Kolkata), will focus on diverse ethnic groups in the North-East States. Subsequently, it will cover other parts of the country.

Home to over 220 ethnic groups living in different topographies having diverse food habits, the North-East is a veritable gold mine when it comes to mapping the gut microflora, said Dinabandhu Sahoo, Director, IBSD.

“The human body is inhabited by 10 times more micro-organisms than the total number of cells present in our body. These microbes contribute 360 times more genes than humans’ own genes and thus play a key role in human physiology and development,” Sahoo said.

Even though there have been isolated studies to map the microbial population, particularly in and around Pune and some pockets in North India, a project of this scale has never been undertaken, said Mande. “Currently, we know absolutely nothing about what is an ideal microbial population for an average healthy Indian,” he said.

Prospects and challenges

The major challenge for the scientists will be to gather samples cleanly and without contamination as they would otherwise lead to erroneous results, said the NCCS Director.

World over, scientists have realised there is much diversity in microbial population within and across communities as they turned their attention to study them. “While it is well known that food habits play a key role in shaping the microbial community inside a person, it is hypothesised that genetics too has its influence,” Mande told BusinessLine.

NCCS microbiologist Yogesh Shouche, who is leading the project, has been involved in such studies over the last 3-4 years. One such recent study by Shouche and his colleagues shows that the Indian gut harbours two distinct types of bacteria which are not found in populations in Europe and the US. In another study, published early this year, the team managed to map microflora in Indian diabetic and pre-diabetic samples.

“The changes in microbiome during diabetes in Indians are significantly different from that observed in the Caucasian population,” said Shouche.

Other studies have already shown that the composition of gut microbes is either a trigger or an indicator for many metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity, and for certain types of cancers.

Published on June 05, 2017

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