What Is Gut Microbiota?

Something is lurking inside your digestive system. Millions and millions of somethings, in fact. But are they friends or foes? Ask Science and special guest Nutrition Diva discuss current research on intestinal bacteria and why they’re so important to our health.

Lee Falin, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #11

Imagine for a moment, a vast alien landscape littered with organic compounds. Pools of acid dot the landscape that is inhabited by hundreds of different organisms whose population measures in the trillions. Teams of ecologists, biologists, and geneticists scramble to find ways to quantify and understand the vast network of interactions between the organisms and their environment.

While this description sounds like the setting for some post-apocalyptic sci-fi film about an alien planet, it is actually taking place much closer to home…inside your digestive system in fact!


Say Hello to My Little Friends

Scientists have long known that the human gut is the home to a variety of different species of bacteria, which play some role in human health. However recent research has revealed that not only is there a much greater number of microscopic inhabitants in our gut than we originally thought, but that the interactions between our bodies and those of our tiny symbiotic friends are much more complicated and have potentially greater impact than we ever realized.

Aside from the bacteria and viruses, various species of fungus have been found which not only live in our gut, but might also be involved in various autoimmune and metabolic diseases such as Crohn’s Disease and colitis.

It’s All About Balance

Something else that’s long been known about the tiny world of gut microbiota is that large populations of “good” bacteria help keep the growth of “bad” bacteria in check. When something happens to upset this balance, the harmful bacteria and fungi have a chance to run amok, and cause all sorts of trouble.

One of the most well-known cases of this is the bacterium Clostridium Difficile (or C. diff as it is commonly called), which can cause colitis. It is estimated that there are over three million C. diff infections contracted by patients in hospitals each year. While the C. diff bacterium is the actual vector of infection, certain antibiotics are considered the cause of infection because by wiping out large populations of bacteria in your gut, they pave the way for C. diff to take over.

Recent research has shown that there may even be a link between gut microbiota and obesity. And microbiologist Zhao Liping found that eating foods that are thought to promote the growth of “good” gut bacteria not only caused the good bacteria to flourish, but also caused the person to lose weight, lower his blood pressure, and lower his heart rate.

So how do we keep our internal balance in check? Let’s ask my colleague Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva...


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.