King's launches British Gut
09 October 2014
The UK's largest open-source science project to understand the microbial diversity of the human gut, British Gut, has been launched by the Department of Twin Research at King's College London, in collaboration with American Gut.
The project will give people in the UK and across Europe the opportunity to learn more about the microbes which live in their gut, skin and mouth, and to find out how these microbes are affected by diet and lifestyle.
Research has shown that the 100 trillion bacteria living naturally in the gut play an important role in human health and disease. Each individual's bacteria are unique to him or her, and small changes in this finely balanced community can influence susceptibility to illnesses such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, cancer, heart disease and obesity.
British Gut aims to create a large resource of samples and data available to scientists. Volunteers are invited to donate to the project, after which they will receive a swab kit to collect a sample of their gut microbes to be sent to King's. British Gut will then sequence the genetic sample, provide participants with a list of the bacteria present in their gut, and map how it compares to the rest of the population sampled.
The Department of Twin Research at King's is home to TwinsUK, the biggest UK adult twin registry with 12,000 twins and one of the leading UK Microbiome centres, which has already identified significant differences in the types of microbes people have in their gut.
Research at Twins UK has also shown that both identical and non-identical twins only share around 50 per cent of bacterial groups. Future studies now need to identify their role and explore how researchers can influence bacteria to improve our health and general wellbeing.
Professor Tim Spector, head of the department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King's and lead investigator for British Gut, says, "Many differences between people may be genetic. Participants in American Gut and now British Gut can test how different diets shape their bodies. This is an exciting time to map our own personalised microbes – which appear to be key for health and longevity, but also for many common diseases. This is a great opportunity for British citizen scientists to find out about their own bodies and diets - whilst also benefiting science."
A recent pilot study led by British Gut showed that diets can change gut microbial diversity, even within a few days. Dietary interventions included a cheese and yogurt-heavy diet, dietary cleanses using only plant foods, and fasting. The dietary interventions, especially the more dramatic cleanses and fasts, did induce changes, but not in the same way in different individuals.
Professor Rob Knight, co-founder of American Gut, says, "Unlike our human genomes, which are all more than 99 per cent the same, our microbiomes are mostly very different from one another. These microbial differences may explain why our bodies respond differently to different diets, but may ultimately help us predict which diets will work for which people."
Interestingly, some people experienced more dramatic changes than others. "These results show that the effect of a dietary intervention – and the ability to detect an effect against background variation – varies from person to person," says Dr Luke Thompson, also of American Gut.