Genetic study reveals how gut bacteria work to keep us healthy

An international team of scientists, led by the University of Glasgow, have announced a new advance in our understanding of how bacteria in our gut can provide positive health benefits.

Published today in Nature Chemical Biology, these breakthrough findings provide evidence that it may be possible to design drugs that can mimic these positive health benefits in a way that might be used to treat diseases such as type II diabetes.

It is known that bacteria in the gut can provide positive health benefits, but the mechanism by which gut bacteria works has been unclear.

Scientists think one possibility is that gut bacteria, by fermenting starches in food such as oats and pulses (like beans and chickpeas), produce compounds called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). One of these SCFA’s is acetic acid – the main component of vinegar.

Once produced, these SCFAs activate specific receptor proteins in our body. Once activated, the receptors can provide health benefits to our bodies.

In a four-year study funded by BBSRC and the MRC, the Glasgow team used a combination of genetics and pharmacology to find out if one of these receptor proteins – called short chain free fatty acid receptor 2 (FFA2) – when activated selectively by drugs, generated responses in the body that underpin the health benefits of gut bacteria.

Andrew Tobin, Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the University’s Institute of Molecular Cell & Systems Biology, said: “This is a major advance in our understanding our how our bodies respond to food and how the bacteria in our gut provide health benefits.

“Through a clever genetic trick, we have been able to determine firstly, that the levels of glucose in our blood and fat in our bodies can be controlled by gut bacteria. This is done via a specific receptor protein in our body, and we believe that the positive health benefits of gut bacteria can be mimicked by drugs that activate this receptor protein.”

Professor Graeme Milligan, Gardiner Chair of Biochemistry, added: “By generating a genetically-altered mouse that contains a form of FFA2 that can be activated only by a drug, we found that FFA2 can control the speed of food moving through the gut, the release of hormones that can control glucose levels and the release of fat from fat tissue.”



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.