The intestinal microbiome is a delicate ecosystem made up of billions and billions of microorganisms, bacteria in particular, that support our immune system, protect us from viruses and pathogens, and help us absorb nutrients and produce energy.
The industrialization process in Western countries had a huge impact on its content.
This was confirmed by a study on the bacteria found in the intestine of Ötzi, the Iceman who, in 1991, emerged from the ice of the Ötztal Alps, where Italy borders with Austria.
Scientists of Eurac Research examined samples of the mummy’s bacteria, confirming the findings of the researchers of the University of Trento who had analyzed the genome of intestinal microorganisms of over 6500 individuals from all continents.
Previous studies by the University of Trento had demonstrated that there is a connection between the microbiome’s bacterial content and the increase, in Western countries, of obesity, autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases, allergies and other complex conditions.
In the study that appeared today in Cell Host & Microbe, researchers from Cibio of the University of Trento and Eurac in Bolzano/Bozen demonstrated that the differences between Western and non-Western or prehistoric microbiome lie in the decrease of some types of bacteria that process complex and vegetal fibers in the intestine.
That may have been caused by the Westernization process. Changes in diet, which is now higher in fat and low in fibers, a sedentary lifestyle in an urban setting, the development of new hygiene habits and the widespread use of antibiotics and other medical products have, with no doubt, made our life safer, but impacted the delicate balance of our microbiome.
About the study
The scientists of Eurac Research in Bolzano/Bozen sequenced the Iceman’s DNA and were able to identify his set of bacteria, while the researchers of the University of Trento compared it with the microbiome of contemporary non-Westernized populations (from Tanzania and Ghana in particular), which are not used to processed food and have non-Westernized hygiene practices and lifestyle. Their findings were surprising.
The study focused, in particular, on Prevotella copri, a microbe that, when is found in our intestine, is usually the most represented. Prevotella copri is present in 30% of Western individuals.
The study is the result of close collaboration with the research group of Albert Zink and Frank Maixner at Eurac Research in Bolzano/Bozen. Their team was responsible for the collection and pre-analysis of the Iceman’s DNA samples.