How math model is helping scientists understand role of gut microbiome in obese patients

Can math help us understand the gut system of obese people? A new international research project dubbed MATOMIC (Mathematical Modeling for Microbial Community Induced Metabolic Diseases) hopes to answer that question by developing mathematical models of how intestinal bacteria influence our health.

Researchers from the University of South Denmark developed MATOMIC to investigate the role of gut microbiomes in obese people. MATOMIC employs 15 researchers over six years and is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Recent studies have revealed that the intestinal microbiome is altered in obese people. Fecal transplants have been used to reverse obese people’s microbiome. During these transplants, patients receive intestinal bacteria from a normal-weight donor.

“Some ten years go it became clear that it works. But how? What exactly is going on? We don’t know. If we are able to find the best treatments, we will need to know in detail what goes on in the microbiome of the intestinal system and how it responds to treatment,” says Daniel Merkle, professor in mathematics and computer science at the University of Southern Denmark and coordinator of MATOMIC, in a media release.

Since examining an entire microbiome is an impossible task, computer models like MATOMIC are a significant help. More than 1,000 different species of microorganisms live in the human gut. In total, an astounding 100,000,000,000,000,000 individual microorganisms inhabit a human intestinal system.

MATOMIC will help measure the interactions that take place between individual enzymes, proteins and molecules in every bacterium found in a person’s microbiome.

“We are interested in mapping all the possible chemical reactions, interactions and networks that may occur among these actors,” notes Rolf Fagerberg, a professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and part of the project. “Some reactions support others, some reactions inhibit others. The possible number of interactions is very large.”

Researchers are developing new algorithms and other tools that will allow them to create a virtual gut system where chemical reactions and networks can be tested. Chemists and biochemists working on MATOMIC will help develop and verify virtual models.

“We want to create mathematical models and simulations of what goes on in the intestinal system — all the way down to the atomic level,” explains Jakob Lykke Andersen, associate professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

Mouse trials will conclude the MATOMIC project. If successful, they could pave the way for clinical trials on humans.

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