How long, a cynic might wonder, before we start to see breakfast cereal fortified with a load of minerals and vitamins, a mega-dose of stevia and battalions of enterobacter cloacae-killing bacteria?
Indeed, just when you began to think genetically modified wheat might indeed be responsible for our over-fat global society -- and not the retention of more calories than we expend by, say, getting our heart rate above 100 every once in a while -- along comes a study out of Shanghai that “proves bacteria to blame for causing obesity,” according to the hed in China Daily USA.
“The [enterobacter cloacae] bacteria can actually make genes generate fat,” Wang Hongyi elaborates. “Scientists have believed that microscopic living organisms in the gut, microbiota, might play a crucial role in gaining weight but were never able to prove it.”
Dr. Jeffrey Gordon’s team working out of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, first showed “a general link between obesity and gut microbiota in mice” in 2004 but had not definitively proved cause and effect.
Now, in a paper published in the International Society for Microbial Ecology’s peer-reviewed ISME Journal on Dec. 13, lead scientist Zhao Liping says his research with mice given enterobacter microbes from human’s stool samples “turned the mice into textbook obesity cases, complete with weight gain and signs of diabetes, but only when the animals ate a high-fat diet.”
"The endotoxin released by the bacterium can activate a gene that helps generate fat,” the professor of microbiology and associate dean at the School of Life Sciences and Biotechnology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University said at a press conference yesterday. “And it also deactivates a gene that consumes fat."
According to a report on the study in France 24, “a human patient lost over 30 kilograms in nine weeks after being placed on a diet of ‘whole grains, traditional Chinese medicinal foods and prebiotics,’ which reduced the bacterium's presence in the patient's gut to ‘undetectable’ levels.
Zhao himself lost 20 kilograms over two years -- leading to lower blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol level -- by adopting “a regimen involving Chinese yam and bitter melon -- fermented prebiotic foods that are believed to change the growth of bacteria in the digestive system” -- and by monitoring not just his weight loss but also the microbes in his gut, according to “My Microbiome and Me,” which was published in a June edition of Science.
The Financial Times’ Pippa Stephens reports that “academics not linked to the project were quick to seize on its potential implications,” citing, in particular, David Weinkove, a lecturer in biological sciences at Durham University. “If obesity is caused by bacteria, it could be infectious and picked up from some unknown environmental factor, or a parent,” he says. “It might not be behavioral after all.”
“Policy disagreements about the reasons for increasing obesity rates have raged for decades, with public health researchers blaming food producers and restaurant companies for what some call an ‘obesogenic environment,’” writes Daily Caller executive editor David Martosko.
“The food industry has blamed a lack of physical activity for the nation’s weight gain, including sedentary behaviors brought on by modern conveniences like automatic dishwashers, television remote controls and public transit systems,” he continues. “Pharmaceutical companies and those that produce bariatric-surgery equipment, meanwhile, have subsidized public health research examining the depth of the problem and recommending health care and government-entitlement.”
But a specially developed diet could be a cheaper and more effective treatment for the morbidly obese than surgery, Zhao said at the press conference, and could be available within three years.
In the end, we suspect that the Zhao team’s finding will be tempered by other scientists pointing out that one explanation for obesity does not fit all. Indeed, "there are many reasons for obesity, such as lack of physical activity, increased calorie intake, genes, environment and intestinal bacteria," Qu Shen, an obesity expert from Shanghai No 10 People's Hospital tells China Daily. "The new research provides a direction," he said.
And so does the tried-and-true research that prompted U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., to testify before Congress in 2004 that “because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”