New insights into precision approaches to healthcare – diet and lifestyle interventions

We really are what we eat. You can either sigh with relief, or gasp with alarm. I’m more of a gasper. I don’t want to run into any of my patients at the supermarket. What they’d see in my cart is indefensible. Those food delivery services, like Grubhub and Chomp, were created by physicians hiding our gluttony from the masses. No one orders take-out crudité except to camouflage the real goal – fat-saturated blue cheese or ranch dressings. 

Scientists at the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), Seattle, just published another wake-up call about our food choices. They reported that the gut microbiome, including microbes in our food intake, is the top contributor to the variation in both the types of metabolites circulating in our bloodstream, and in the composition of the metabolites, which is unique to individuals. This understanding will enable targeting interventions to alter the composition of the blood metabolome. 

“We know that person-to-person variation in the blood metabolome – the small molecules found in the bloodstream that can interact with all the systems of our body – can tell us a lot about health and disease status. Figuring out what governs this variation is a necessary step that gets us closer to precision approaches to healthcare,” explains Sean Gibbons, PhD, an ISB faculty member. 

The research team investigated 930 metabolites present in the blood of more than 1,500 individuals. The metabolites were associated with either host genetics or the gut microbiome. Of these associations, 69 percent were driven solely by the microbiome, 15 percent driven solely by genetics, and 16 percent were under hybrid genetic-microbiome control. 

The high number of microbiome-specific metabolites suggests that much of our blood metabolome could be modified through dietary and lifestyle interventions. Metabolites under genetic control may not respond to lifestyle modifications but may respond to pharmacological interventions. 

“A deeper understanding of the determinants of the blood metabolome will provide us with a window into how these circulating metabolite levels can be engineered and optimized for health,” adds. Dr. Andrew Magis, co-corresponding author of the paper. “Understanding which circulating small molecules fall predominantly under host versus microbiome control will help guide interventions designed to prevent and/or treat a range of diseases.”

These findings are published in the journal Nature.

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