Real time measurements of intestinal
gases: a novel method to study how food is being digested

Researchers in Wageningen (The
Netherlands), have been able to identify for the first time, how gut microorganisms
process different types of carbohydrates by measuring in real time the intestinal
gases of mice. This is not only a novel method to understand how food is
digested but could also tell us more about the role of gut microorganisms in
gut health.

Intestinal gases

The intestinal microbiota is a diverse and
dynamic community of microorganisms which regulate our health status. The
advancement of biomolecular techniques and bioinformatics nowadays allows
researchers to explore the residents of our intestines, revealing what type of microorganisms
are there. However, studying only the microbial composition of an individual
provides limited insights on the mechanisms by which microorganisms can
interact with the rest of our body. For example, far less is understood about
the contribution of the gut microorganisms in the production of intestinal
gases such as hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide through the breakdown of
food and how these gases affect the biochemical pathways of our bodies.

Intestinal gases consist mostly of
nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, which originate primarily from inhaled air. Hydrogen
and methane though, are produced as by-products of carbohydrate fermentation
(break down), by intestinal microorganisms. However, not all carbohydrates are
digested in the same way. For instance, food with simple sugars can be rapidly absorbed
in the small intestine unlike complex carbohydrates such as fibers, which reach
the colon where they are digested by the colonic microbiota.


Measuring hydrogen in mouse intestines

To study these interactions and gain
knowledge on how microorganisms process carbohydrates, the research team led by Evert van
Schothorst from the Human and Animal Physiology Group of Wageningen University
(WU) in collaboration with the WU-Laboratory of Microbiology fed mice two
different diets with the same nutritional values but with different types of carbohydrates
(1). The first diet contained amylopectin,
a carbohydrate which can be digested readily in the small intestine while the
second diet contained amylose, a slowly digestible carbohydrate that is
digested by intestinal microorganisms in the colon.

Animals fed the easily digestible carbohydrates
showed minimal production of hydrogen whereas the group fed with the complex
carbohydrates presented high levels of hydrogen. Moreover, the two groups were
characterized not only by distinct microbial composition (different types of
bacteria present) but also distinct metabolic profiles (short chain fatty acids),
suggesting that the type of carbohydrate strongly affects microbial composition
and function.

The importance of

Hydrogen consumption is essential in any anoxic
(without oxygen) microbial environment to maintain fermentative processes. In
the intestine it can be utilised through three major pathways for the
production of acetate, methane and hydrogen sulphide. These molecules are
critical mediators of gut homeostasis, as acetate is the most predominant short
chain fatty acid produced in mammals with evidence suggesting a role in inflammation and obesity (2). Methane, which is produced by a specific type of microorganisms,
called archaea, has been associated with constipation related diseases, such as
irritable bowel syndrome(3) and also recently with athletes’ performance (4)! Finally hydrogen sulphide
is considered to be a toxic gas, although recent findings support the notion
that it also has neuroprotective effects in neurodegenerative disorders such as
Parkinson and Alzheimer diseases (5).

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that food-microbiota interactions have been studied continuously, non-invasively and in real time in a mouse model. Hydrogen is a critical molecule for intestinal health and understanding its dynamics can provide valuable information about intestinal function, and deviations in conditions such as Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Further reading

1. Fernández-Calleja, J.M., et al., Non-invasive continuous real-time in vivo analysis of microbial
hydrogen production shows adaptation to fermentable carbohydrates in mice.

Scientific reports, 2018. 8(1): p.

Perry, R.J., et al., Acetate mediates a
microbiome–brain–β-cell axis to promote metabolic syndrome.
Nature, 2016. 534(7606): p. 213

3. Triantafyllou, K., C. Chang, and M. Pimentel,
Methanogens, methane and gastrointestinal
Journal of neurogastroenterology and motility, 2014. 20(1): p. 31.

4. Petersen, L.M., et al., Community characteristics of the gut microbiomes of competitive
Microbiome, 2017. 5(1):
p. 98.

5. Cakmak,
Y.O., Provotella‐derived hydrogen sulfide, constipation,
and neuroprotection in Parkinson’s disease. Movement Disorders, 2015. 30(8): p.

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