The human body shelters ten times more microbes than it contains human cells. Microbes, which are also referred to as microorganisms, include bacteria and fungi. Now, JDRF-funded scientists from the University of Florida are asking how the microbes in our bodies—collectively known as the microbiome—interact with the body and affect health. Using genetic tools to compare the microbiome of people with and without type 1 diabetes, researchers have found key differences in the composition and genetic makeup of the microbes living in the gut that could help explain the increased incidence of type 1 diabetes worldwide.
Microbes live in every nook and cranny of our bodies, but those that make their home in the gut are especially important in keeping us healthy. These microbes, particularly those that live in the small intestine, play a role in shaping the immune system early in life—and in type 1 diabetes, it is thought that this immune interaction with gut microbes may go awry at a very young age.
In their work, researchers led by Eric W. Triplett, Ph.D., chair of the University of Florida’s microbiology and cell science department, found that the microbiomes of children with type 1 diabetes are less diverse—that is, there are fewer types of microbes—than those without the disease. They also found that the microbes produce more of a specific substance that allows them to stick to the intestinal walls of the gut, which could be involved in triggering the autoimmune response that occurs in type 1 diabetes.
“JDRF is focused on identifying and understanding the contribution of the intestinal microbiome to the development of type 1 diabetes, which may provide novel approaches for its prevention,” says Richard A. Insel, M.D., chief scientific officer at JDRF.
To better understand how the differences in the microbiome may be causing the immune system to go awry, Dr. Triplett and his team looked at the genes of the major bacteria within the microbiome and their functions. They found that the bacteria in people with type 1 diabetes have significantly more genes that allow the bacteria to metabolize carbohydrates and respond to and survive under stressful conditions.
Ultimately, the work on the microbiome may lead to preventive therapies for children who are at risk for developing type 1 diabetes. The overarching goal of this work, says Dr. Triplett, is to identify children with unhealthy microbiomes well before autoimmunity starts to set in and reshape it, and to treat those children with beneficial bacteria that can protect them from ever developing the disease.