Scientists researching the microbiome and its relationship with human health counsel that the field is still in its infancy and that they have so far only “scratched the surface”. At the same time, they convey unerring confidence in its game-changing potential.

If there is a certain bullishness about what microbiome research may yield, it may stem from the sheer scale of what scientists see before them and the possibility that creates. The organisms involved may be microscopic but the microbiome is a vast system that can now be examined and understood in extraordinary detail through a combination of microbiology, genomics, and advanced data analytics.

“There are about 39 trillion bacteria residing in each individual human body and this creates complexity as each microbiome is comprised of unique patterns of microorganism populations,” says Daniel Ramon Calvo, global marketing specialist for B2B microbiome solutions, health and wellness, at US agri-business company ADM.

Underlining the multi-disciplinary aspect of microbiome-related R&D, ADM acquired microbial technology specialists Biopolis and Lifesequencing in 2017.

“The advancements in AI today provide essential machine-learning approaches to identify individual strains or microbial consortia,” Calvo continues. “AI and supporting data analysis programmes will continue to help us identify select strains for further microbiome advancements and innovations that will be used to help those seeking specialised solutions.”

Personal growth

Advanced data analytics are critical to progress in microbiome research across the board, but particularly so in relation to personalised nutrition. The forecast expansion of personalised nutrition will only be further bolstered by the increasing understanding of the microbiome and how it influences human health.

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“We believe understanding and studying the microbiome is a key piece to unlocking tailored health and wellness solutions for people around the globe,” says Calvo. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Nestlé adds: “Computational approaches such as machine learning and predictive modelling are key as we move towards the next generation of personalised nutritional solutions adapted to the individual’s microbiome.”

For Dr Jan Knol, senior science director, gut biology and microbiology at Danone Nutricia Research, it is a matter not only of seeing the microbiome as a complex system but that “our bodies with their microbiomes is a complex system”. The challenges will be different in all of us, Dr Knol says, “so we may all need active microbiome modulators that could be very personal”.

Two further areas where the microbiome is widely expected to have an enormous impact are in relation to the gut-brain axis and boosting immunity.

“There is still much to be explored in the microbiome space, and with increasing understanding of the potential for the gut to communicate important information to the brain, the immune system, and more, we anticipate that digging into this space further will lead to exciting breakthroughs that will benefit physical, mental, and emotional health,” Calvo says

Knol points to “convincing studies” showing a gut-brain interaction where microbes play a very important role. “We know the gut is central in our health, a large amount of our immune system is in the gut, a lot of our metabolism is regulated in the gut and there’s a large brain in the gut.”

Particularly because of its positive impact on the personalised nutrition trend, understanding of the microbiome promises to strengthen the link consumers make between nutrition and health with positive implications for reducing diet-related illness.

It may well have a positive impact on obesity in its own right because of the influence it could have over satiety, among other factors. As if it had not already given the food industry enough, the microbiome may provide solutions to the challenging issue of antimicrobial resistance.

Communicating with care

Amid the excitement that the microbiome-related research is creating, there is concern the hype could risk running ahead of the science.

Knol sees the potential for “misinformation” and unsupported claims to undermine how the field is being presented.”We really need to follow the science on this,” he tells Just Food. “We need credible studies, we need credible data to drive this field.”

Dr Simone Pyle, science and technology manager for foods and refreshment at Unilever, concurs: “With advances being made in the understanding of the microbiome, we do expect greater recognition of its importance – from scientists, healthcare practitioners, and the public. As with all emerging areas, it is important to ensure that the science is supportive of the claims being made.”

Interestingly, with regard to communicating the merits of the microbiome to consumers, scientists may find they need to come to a consensus as to what it means.

As it stands, the term has two distinct but related meanings. Increasingly, it is used to denote all the ecosystem of microbes that exists within or on a human being. However, it was coined as the microbial counterpart of the human genome and, in that usage, it only means all the genetic material of the microbiota in or on a human being.

It is perhaps a minor distinction that may not trouble many consumers but the fact it exists at all arguably underlines how young this field of study is. Dr Knol believes it will be the broader, ecological definition that will prevail, pointing out that defining the microbiome in this way also incorporates the genetic composition of the microbiota.

Unilever’s Dr Pyle expresses concern regarding the level of scientific detail in consumer communication about the microbiome. “The way we communicate to consumers will therefore be incredibly important,” she suggests.

“For example, rather than delving into the mechanism by which an ingredient or formulation is delivering the benefit, we should focus on the benefit to the consumer. As with all new product developments, we will also draw upon insights from pilots and testing to help us shape the way we present the science in a way that is understood by consumers, whilst also educating them about the science where possible.”

It is rather ironic to think consumer apprehension about microbes could be an issue given the active role the food industry has played, for justifiable reasons, in conditioning consumers to be live to the dangers of microscopic pathogens. In fact, a further revelation of microbiome research could be that food processors have been too efficient in eliminating microbes from their products, Knol explains.

“It’s really important that we eat our microbes. Our diets have become too sterile, too processed. Our intake of microbes has reduced. People are scared of microbes because of infections. They may be scared by bacteria and microorganisms but they are an essential part of our health. We need to take care of our microbial personal ecosystem.”

Hungry for data

While understanding the microbiome may provide ways to influence satiety, the scientists researching this will have, like all in the field, an insatiable appetite for data.

“We need more studies, we need bigger studies, longitudinal studies where we also have the dietary information,” Dr Knol tells Just Food. “And then we need the data tools, artificial intelligence to connect the dots, to understand how this system interacts and how we can then support that.”

Danone Nutricia is collaborating with the Center for Microbiome Innovation (CMI) at the University of California San Diego in the Human Diets & Microbiome Initiative, a data-gathering project.

“We’re encouraging people to send us their microbiome samples,” CMI director of research Dr Se Jin Song euphemistically explains, adding hastily “their stool samples” in the interests of scientific accuracy and possibly to banish the idea a biologist might be squeamish about such things.

As it would be rather difficult for participants in such studies to send the microbes on their own, a further consequence of the proliferation of microbiome research is an exponential increase in the amount of faecal matter being sent through the mail.