Goading bacteria to keep us healthy

The human body harbours around 100 trillion microbial cells. Our gastrointestinal tract (gut) alone hosts thousands of different colonies of microbes. Not all these microbes are harmful; in fact many work to keep us healthy. So, when nature has bestowed us with an army of millions, why not keep them in good shape, asks Ramkrishna Singh, a researcher with the IITB-Monash Research Academy.

Ramkrishna is working on a project titled, ‘Development of health foods from xylan-rich sources’ under the supervision of Prof Amit Arora (IIT-B) and Dr Jane Muir (Monash University). His aim is to study different microbes for their ability to ferment / use oligosaccharides as a source of energy and the metabolites produced thereupon.

“Processed but healthy food products are gaining popularity in today’s fast-paced world,” explains Ramkrishna. “This has led to a rise in the market for functional food, nutraceuticals, and supplements. However, there has also been an increase in lifestyle-related diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, gut disorders, and chronic fatigue. Researchers have proposed a link between the bacteria in our gut and lifestyle diseases, therefore it is important that we ensure our gut bacterial population is healthy.”

And this is where prebiotics — which serve as a food source for these microbes — come in.

While probiotics are “good” bacteria that help keep our digestive system healthy by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria, prebiotics are a special form of dietary fibre that act as a fertiliser for the good bacteria in our guts.

Foods such as chicory, artichoke, garlic, onion, leek, and asparagus are rich sources of prebiotics. Regularly consuming these can be useful in containing inflammatory bowel disease, improving mineral absorption and glucose and lipid metabolism, reducing the risk of pathogenic infection and diarrhea, and improving body weight management.

Prebiotics like xylooligosaccharides (XOS), which Ramkrishna is working with, can be used as an ingredient for fortification of dairy products such as yogurt; baked food products including bread, pasta, pizza dough; and fermented products like idli. Essentially, they are a white, soluble powder and hence can be used as an ingredient for multiple homemade dishes.

The biggest advantage that xylooligosaccharides have over other commercially available prebiotics like fructooligosaccharides, inulin, galactooligosaccharides or lactulose is that they can be obtained from residues discarded as a result of agricultural, horticultural, forestry, or industrial activities.

The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen scientific relationships between the two countries. Graduate research scholars like Ramkrishna study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich their research experience.

Says Prof Murali Sastry, CEO of the Academy, “Researchers have focused on limited species of microbes to determine prebiotic effect. However, as students like Ramkrishna are discovering, numerous species reside inside the gut and can utilise oligosaccharides. We just need to goad the bacteria inside our bodies to work for us!”

Research scholar: Ramkrishna Singh, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Development of health foods from xylan-rich sources

Supervisors: Prof Amit Arora and Dr Jane Muir

Contact details: ramdsingh@gmail.com

This story was written by Mr Krishna Warrier based on inputs from the research student, his supervisors and IITB-Monash Research Academy. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.