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Intestinal mucous: a delicacy for some, a source of fascination for others

Arno Schintlmeister, David Berry and Michael Wagner using the NanoSIMS device of the University of Vienna. (Frederik Schulz/University of Vienna)

Yeah, this is what it looks like to really love your job. 

Every day, my inbox gets flooded by press releases announcing the latest medical study on this or that. It can be a slog wading through them all and determining which ones are as "ground-breaking" or significant as the press releases claim.

But this study -- about scientists who have "for the first time succeeded in directly observing microorganisms feeding on the intestinal mucosa" -- caught my eye, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, because of this awesome picture of super-excited scientists in Vienna using their new 2 million Euro, state-of-the-art NanoSIMS machine.

Secondly was the press release itself. The headline -- On the trail of mucus-eaters in the gut -- sucked me in. The press release contains some pretty dense subject matter but has the same serious-but-excitedly-gleeful vibe as the picture and kept me engaged.

It also opened with a kind of dare to keep reading:

"To understand the research project by Michael Wagner and his team, one must be ready to follow the microbiologists into the depths of mouse intestine."

Yup, ready. Next, one of the scientists quoted in the press release gives us this evocative image:

Michael Wagner, Professor for Microbial Ecology, provides this analogy: "Much like cows grazing in a meadow, intestinal bacteria can feed on mucus secreted by the mucosal tissue."

According to the researchers, some microorganisms wrinkle their noses at the food we eat and send down to their dining rooms, a.k.a. our guts. They prefer instead to gorge on delicious intestinal mucous instead.

Using lab mice as test subjects, the scientists asked: "Which organisms in healthy mice consider the mucosa and intestinal mucus layer a delicacy?"

The biggest fans of mucosa, the researchers found, were mainly Akkermansia muciniphilia and Bacteroides acidifaciens. And using "isotope ratio mass spectrometry measurements" and the high-resolution NanoSIMS machine, the scientists were able to enjoy a little microbial voyeurism and watch the bacteria feasting on their mucous-y dinner.

Here's a snapshot of what they saw:


This shows corresponding FISH (left) and NanoSIMS (right) analysis of gut microorganisms. Bacteroides or Akkermansia cells were stained with the aid of specific FISH probes. The amount of stable isotope 15N was analyzed in the same cells by NanoSIMS. The higher the 15N content of a cell, the more intestinal mucosa was taken up. White arrows point to cells that have taken up mucus. The Bacteroides cell marked with a green arrow has not fed on mucus. (Department of Microbial Ecology, University of Vienna)

So why is this experiment exciting? For one, as the press release states, "Gut microbiota is hot research topic." Thanks to ever cheaper and faster technologies, scientists are learning more about the human microbiome -- the trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi living on our bodies and performing key roles in regulating human health. Microbiome research has already unearthed new revelations about everything from infant health and obesity to acne -- as well as new strategies for treating gut problems.

And intestinal mucous is a "vital barrier to block pathogenic microorganisms from entering the body and also plays a major role in inflammatory bowel disease," the press release states. Learning about which bacteria like to munch on our intestinal mucous will hopefully help us figure out how to stop them from eating away at our health.

The press release says these scientists will continue making this area of research a priority -- and, I suspect, continue having a ball while doing so.

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar



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