While the importance of gut health, be it in humans or in poultry, is increasingly recognized, there remain significant gaps in our knowledge. There is still more to be learned about which bacteria do what, and how they do it and, of course, the microbiota comprises living organisms, so its regulation to ensure maximum benefit to the host is not always easy.

However, ensuring correct microbial composition in the gut may become less important, now that evidence has been published showing that it may be possible to design drugs that can mimic bacteria’s positive health benefits to treat diseases in humans such as Type II diabetes.

That gut bacteria can provide positive benefits has long been known, yet the mechanism by which these bacteria work has been unclear.

Now, however, an international team of scientists, led by the U.K.’s University of Glasgow, thinks one possibility is that gut bacteria, by fermenting starches, produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and that these SCFAs activate specific receptor proteins in the body, providing health benefits.

In a four-year study, funded by the U.K.’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council, the Glasgow team used a combination of genetics and pharmacology to find out if one these receptor proteins, SFCA receptor 2 (FFA2), when activated selectively by drugs, generated responses in the body that underpin the health benefits of gut bacteria.

Major advance

Andrew Tobin, professor of molecular pharmacology at the university’s Institute of Molecular Cell & Systems Biology, noted that the work provided a major advance in how bodies respond to food and how gut bacteria provide health benefits.

“Through a clever genetic trick,” he said, “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.”

While the findings may be positive for human health, are they relevant for poultry?

They may well be.

Chickens have the same receptor that was the focus of the study and, in fact, chickens have far more copies and variants of this gene than humans, suggesting that it may play an even more important role.

With special thanks to the University of Glasgow.