It’s gut check time for EC students as they discover what’s lurking within

 

by Michele Lehman

Did you ever get a gut feeling that something was the right thing to do? Well, Eureka College assistant professor of environmental studies Renée Mullen and eight students in her microbial ecology and environmental microbiology class followed their guts and joined the American Gut project.

American Gut logo

The project has nothing to do with feelings, however. It has everything to do with gauging Americans’ health by charting the bacteria that live in their guts, that is their colons.

Dr. Mullen used part of the financial award she received as the 2013 Helen Cleaver Distinguished Teaching Award winner to pay to enroll herself and the students in the international project that includes more than 1,000 participants.

“Having the chance to have our class participate and add to the collective understanding in this burgeoning field was something I just couldn’t pass up,” Dr. Mullen said. “Plus, it’s turning out to be a great way to teach microbial ecology; our intestines are turning out to be a fascinating ecosystem,” she said.

Each student has had her or his gut microbiome/ecosystem sequenced by sending a fecal sample to the project. There, microbiologists look at the species of bacteria (which usually number at least 200) that live in each participant’s gut. The microbiologists do this by extracting and studying the bacteria’s nucleotides, or proteins, found in the bacteria’s DNA.

Participants will know what species are living inside them and how that compares to, say, sick people, healthy people, people who exercise frequently, fish eaters, yogurt eaters and even their dogs.

Human Food Project - Anthropology of Microbes

How does your gut compare to folks following different diets? Image courtesy of American Gut

Students are excited to receive the results, which are expected back in early November. “Knowing that I have a mini-city living in my intestines is crazy to think about, but the fact that we are going to find out who is living in there is really mind-blowing,” said senior biology major Haylee Bruce. “It’s like the comedy film Osmosis Jones in real life!” she said.

Junior biology major Belle Grober added, “When Dr. Mullen told us exactly what we would have to do in order to participate in this study, I was a bit skeptical. Sampling feces did not sound particularly appealing. However, now that I understand the implications of the study, not to mention getting the incredible opportunity to compare the gut microbes of the class, I cannot wait to receive our results.”

The more people who submit samples, the greater the chance that perplexing questions like, “How many microbes on our food end up colonizing our digestive tracts?” and “How can we get more good bacteria to colonize our digestive tracts?” and “How do antibiotics and processed food affect the gut?” may be answered, according to Dr. Mullen.

Escherichia coli

Ultimately, the project may answer why individuals’ guts vary so much in their microbial make-up. As a result, the project may be able to provide recommendations about what lifestyle factors are associated with healthier gut bacteria and, consequently, overall health of the individual. The project could hold keys to unlocking questions about microbes’ roles in cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases and obesity. And that’s good news for everyone, Dr. Mullen said.

Junior biology major Ella Stewart agrees: “The best part about this experiment is that it makes our little class in Eureka part of a bigger, widescale experiment that could potentially be beneficial for the larger population. I can’t wait to receive the results for the entire microbiome project.”

For more information about the project, go to americangut.org or contact Mullen at 467-6460 or rmullen@eureka.edu.