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Gut Microbe Linked to Longer Exercise Endurance

2014 Boston Marathon

Elite women’s start of the 2014 Boston Marathon (JD, Flickr)

24 June 2019. An analysis of gut microbes from elite athletes identified a particular bacterial strain, which in tests with lab mice boosted their exercise endurance. Results of the study from researchers at Harvard University and affiliated institutes appear in today’s issue of the journal Nature Medicine (paid subscription required).

The study’s two senior authors and first author are co-founders of Fitbiomics Inc. in New York, a spin-off enterprise from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering applying high-throughput genomic sequencing of the microbiome for sports medicine to produce performance-enhancing probiotics.

The analysis aims to provide a better understanding of the gut microbiome, the community of bacteria and other microbes in the intestines, particularly the functioning of microbes that affect athletic performance. Much of the attention to date is given to connections between gut microbes and disease. The team from the labs of Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church, also one of the core faculty at the Wyss Institute, and Aleksander Kostic, a microbiologist at Joslin Diabetes Center, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, seeks to identify microbes in the gut that may promote greater strength or endurance.

“At the start of this project,” says former postdoctoral researcher and the paper’s first author Jonathan Scheiman in a Wyss Institute statement, “we hypothesized that the microbiomes of elite athletes must have highly adjusted bacterial species in common that could help with their performance and recovery, and that, once identified, these could become the basis of highly validated performance-enhancing probiotics.” Scheiman is a co-founder — along with Church, Kostic, and three others — of Fitbiomics and is now the company’s CEO.

The team took stool samples from elite runners taking part in the 2015 Boston Marathon from a week before to a week after the race. The runners’ samples disclosed an abundance of bacteria known as Veillonella after the race, particularly a strain called Veillonella atypica. Veillonella is part of the normal microbiome communities in the mouth, gut, and vaginal tract. But Veillonella atypica, when isolated from the runners and transferred to lab mice, increased the mice’s exercise endurance on treadmills by 13 percent.

The researchers then sought to understand how Veillonella atypica works with elite athletes. The team conducted a genomic analysis of the microbes from the samples using bioinformatics tools from Kostic’s lab. “We were able to demonstrate that the Veillonella-driven performance boost,” notes Kostic, “was due to the bacteria’s ability to break down lactate, a metabolite known to accumulate with prolonged strenuous exercise, and to produce propionate, a short-chain fatty acid, that in turn enhances the body’s resilience to exercise stress.”

Still not known, however, were the exact workings of propionate with lactate in the gut to affect athletic performance. The researchers added a tracing molecule to lactate in lab mice, and transferred propionate to the guts of the mice to find out. The team’s analysis shows lactate in the lab mice equivalent of elite runners crosses from the blood stream into the interior of the intestinal tract. There, Veillonella atypica soak up the lactate, but propionate also metabolizes lactate, with the added benefit of reducing indicators of inflammation. Further tests with the mice show mice with added propionate displayed exercise endurance similar to the earlier mice given Veillonella atypica.

“Now that we have built out a platform for identifying microbes associated with extreme performances,” says Church, “we can explore the microbiomes of other types of extreme athletes or individuals that are highly adapted to environmental challenges, uncover additional beneficial functional links, and work towards translating them into probiotic treatments.”

Church is a serial entrepreneur, founding or licensing discoveries from his lab to dozens of start-up and spin-off enterprises, including Fitbiomics. For Scheiman, Fitbiomics is more than a business. He played college basketball at St. John’s University in New York, on teams that won the Big East conference championship in 2000 and post-season National Invitational Tournament in 2003.

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