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NCCIH Research Blog

Next Steps for Research on Probiotics and Microbial-Host Keystone Organisms

May 7, 2018

Linda Duffy, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Program Director

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

D. Craig Hopp, Ph.D.

D. Craig Hopp, Ph.D.

Deputy Director

Division of Extramural Research

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

View biographical sketch

Could discoveries about probiotics and the microbiome eventually help us to eat healthier, live longer, and even eliminate some chronic diseases?

That’s one of the many questions to be explored in an NCCIH-sponsored symposium at the upcoming International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health (ICIMH). “Back to the Future: Probiotics and Microbial-Host Keystone Organisms and their Essential Functions” will take place on Thursday, May 10, from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m. ET. It will focus on lessons learned from studies, next steps, and likely directions for research.

Speakers will include Margherita Cantorna, Ph.D., of the Pennsylvania State University; Melanie Gareau, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis; Sean Brady, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University; and Hernan Lorenzi, Ph.D., of the J. Craig Ventner Institute, who is also the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) coprincipal investigator on the Study of the Impact of Long-Term Space Travel on the Astronauts’ Microbiome. This post’s authors will serve as chair and moderator, respectively. Below is a short preview of some things learned from the science so far.

The most extensive evidence has shown that the microbes that live in our intestines help us digest food, make some of the vitamins we need, and enhance the immune system. Currently, scientists are studying how probiotics and the microbiome can affect body weight, susceptibility to cancer, and even behavior. In short, probiotics and microbiome science show exciting potential for our overall health.

Probiotic bacteria have evolved naturally with humans. Since they are found naturally in fermented foods and breast milk, they may have constituted part of the ancestral human diet. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that we can treat and even prevent some illnesses with foods and supplements containing certain kinds of live bacteria. Among the thousands of probiotic strains, scientists report that a few species appear to be most valuable; these are called “keystone species.”

Research in probiotic biology has been accelerating because of recent advances and novel omics and emergence of live cell–based technologies. These methods have been immensely helpful as we seek to understand probiotic mechanisms from nutritional functional food and antimicrobial resistance health perspectives.

NASA has learned that spending time in the low-gravity environment of space leads to significant changes to the body. For example, the bones weaken, and immunity may diminish. Could supplying astronauts with “probiotic kits” potentially counteract these effects?

Despite the exploding popularity of probiotic foods and the research in this topic area, many questions still need to be answered. If you will be at the conference, we hope that you can join us to find out more.


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