Guwahati: As researchers across the globe zoom in on the trillions of micro-organisms thriving inside the human gut to understand their role in health, a group of Indian scientists has, in a pioneering effort, mapped the gut bacteria of 15 ethnic tribes of the country, enabling development of personalised medicines and designer diets to suit changing lifestyles.
Involving 193 healthy individuals from tribes of Assam, Manipur, Sikkim and Telangana, the research published in the December 2015 edition of Nature Scientific Reports also highlights the resemblance of Gut Bacterial Profile (GBP) of these communities with the profiles of the Mongoloid population of Mongolia.
"Till now there was no such report on the GBP of the ethnic tribes of India. With the rapid economic development coupled with modernization of lifestyle, the tribal population of India may eventually undergo alteration in GBP and it is important to know the profile of these microorganisms to prepare necessary strategies for action," Mojibur R. Khan, group leader of the study, told IANS.
Charting out the profile will help in unravelling the puzzle of how diet, genes and geography shape GBP and how even minute changes in the milieu of microorganisms have a significant impact on human health.
"It will also help us in designing personalized medication and nutritional standards," said Khan, a scientist at Guwahati's Institute of Advanced Study in Science and Technology (IASST).
In addition to IASST, other collaborators in the Department of Biotechnology-funded project include Narayan C. Talukdar from Manipur's Institute of Bioresources & Sustainable Development (IBSD) and Rupjyoti Talukdar from Hyderabad's Asian Healthcare Foundation/Asian Institute of Gastroenterology.
Gut bacteria and the human microbiome are red hot topics right now. In 2015, a major chunk of research was directed on these tiny companions that live inside and on human bodies and as links to obesity, brain and cardiac health emerged, it became clear that they are much more important than previously thought.
Practical applications like faecal transplant (yes poop!) to fight life-threatening diseases became a reality.
While some of these microbes like the dry parts of skin, others snuggle up in the warm confines of the mouth or the moist skin folds of underarms. It's a symbiosis: humans offer them residence, they help us live.
But the major chunk of real estate for these bacteria, virus and fungi is the human gut.
Your gut feeling is literally defined by about 1,000 bacterial species. And together, they represent 3.3 million unique genes in the gut, which is 150 times more genes than our own genome.
Dietary and environmental influences alter the delicate ecosystem carefully constructed by the teeming bugs and this impacts the normal microbiome.
And then a harmless organism can become a disease-causing one under the impaired circumstances. Or your overall health may become topsy turvy due to the erosion of a particularly beneficial species.
So, common practices like eating curd (or other probiotics) regularly ensures the gut gets its share of good bacteria to ease digestion.
Khan said that as many as 593 bacterial varieties were detected in the profiles and Sikkim tribes showed a "higher abundance" of probiotic bacterial varieties like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus as they consume more dairy products, including curd.
As an offshoot to the GBP mapping, the researchers have launched another study to understand how the GBP can be altered by intake of dairy products and their effect on health.
"When compared with the worldwide data on gut bacteria, the Indian tribal population had more similarity with the Mongoloid population of Mongolia. This means either the genetic similarity or the geographical settings have resulted in the particular food habits (such as fermented foods) and resulting gut bacterial profile," said Khan of IASST's Molecular Biology and Microbial Biotechnology Laboratory, Life Science Division.
"Furthermore, most of these tribes prepare traditional rice beer using some herbs, which they consume regularly. This may also have some role in their health benefits as it is included in their custom and rituals. We have taken this as an intense area of research to understand the effect of rice beer on GBP and health," added Khan.