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UVa researchers discover an important function of gut microbes

Claire Benjamin/RIPE

Researchers at UVa Health have made strides in understanding how our gut microbiome affects our health and wellbeing. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Our intestines have a ton of microorganisms that help us digest our food. And when these microbes break down that food, some of the byproducts, or 'metabolites,' are substances called 'short-chain fatty acids.'

UVa Health
Jason Papin runs the Computational Systems Biology Lab in the biomedical engineering department at UVa.

Dr. Sean Moore, a pediatric gastroenterologist, and Systems Biologist Jason Papin set out to discover what effects those metabolites had on gut cells in the lab. They found that a specific few were instrumental in regulating the digestive system's circadian rhythm – basically, making sure the gut is up and active during the day, and resting and repairing at night.

Papin said the research is one step towards –

JASON PAPIN: Just understanding, really, the relationship between microbes and human health – we're learning something every day.

He used advanced computer modeling to determine which metabolites were the ones affecting the digestive system's rhythm. As Moore explained –

UVa Health
Dr. Sean Moore is a pediatric gastroenterologist at UVa Health.

SEAN MOORE: It really helped us narrow that daunting list of hundreds of metabolites down to sort of four or five prime suspects, and lo and behold, when we looked at those short-chain fatty acids that showed up in the predictions, those indeed were the individual molecules that were causing these profound shifts.

He said an application of this research could be finding the precise time that taking a certain medicine would be most beneficial.

MOORE: Would there be a better time of day to take a probiotic if you're trying to restore a healthy gut microbiome, say in the aftermath of taking antibiotics?

Another could be determining the best time of day for children in impoverished countries to take oral vaccines that protect them against rotavirus and polio.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.