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Bugs Mimic Human Signals

In recent years it’s become clear that the microbes that can live in our guts may have many profound effects on human health – from obesity and diabetes to neurological disorders. But how they can exert all these different effects is not always clear.

One way they achieve this is by communicating directly with the cells of their human host, sending signals that they can recognise and react to.

A recent study from Rockefeller University [1] has cast some light on the signals that the bugs use. They found that some gut bacteria synthesise a group of molecules called N-acyl amides which are known to bind to a receptor molecule found on the membranes of cells in the human gut.

Human cells respond to all kinds of signals from their environment; they sense most of these through large protein molecules, known as receptors, embedded in their membranes. Each type of receptor binds to specific molecules, like a key fits in a lock. It turn out that the gut bacteria are able to make molecules that bind to a specific receptor called GPR 119, that is known to have a role in glucose and appetite.

It turns out that the bacteria are using a human signalling pathway. One of the exciting insights from this work is that the scientists were able to engineer bacteria to produce these signals, which could be a novel way to fine-tune the function of the gut microbiome and its effects on the human body.

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[1] Cohen L, et al., (2017) Commensal bacteria make GPCR ligands that mimic human signalling molecules. Nature  549 (7670):48-53