Athletic bugs

C&I Issue 7, 2017

Elite athletes are super fit, mentally tough and strong. But their superior performance could also be partly down to the bacteria that inhabit their digestive tracts, researchers have found. Top athletes host bacteria that convert nutrients to energy more efficiently, and help them better recover after a tough workout, they reported at the ACS meeting in Washington in August 2017.

The good news is that we could soon all benefit from the discovery, according to Jonathan Scheiman, a postdoctoral researcher in the group of George Church at Harvard University. Later in 2017, the group plans to launch a company called Fitbiomics, which will formulate some of the beneficial bugs as commercial probiotics.

‘When we first started thinking about this, I was asked whether we could use genomics to identify the next Michael Jordan,’ Sheiman says. ‘But my response was: Can you extract Jordan’s biology and give it to others to help them become the next Michael Jordan?’

Since the vast majority of our DNA comes from the bacteria in our guts, this seemed like the obvious place to start. Sheiman first identified some of the bugs of interest from athletes taking part in the 2015 Boston marathon, he explained, joking about how he spent ‘two weeks driving around Boston collecting fecal samples and putting them on dry ice in the car’.

The team collected samples from 20 athletes training for the marathon on a daily basis for a week before and a week after the race. Their study revealed a sudden spike in the population of one particular bacteria – known to break down lactic acid – after the marathon. Lactic acid is produced during intense exercise, and can lead to muscle fatigue and soreness, so removing it would be a definite advantage.

Another beneficial bacteria, which can help break down carbohydrates and fibre, was also found in ‘ultramarathoners,’ but not in rowers. This suggests that different sports may foster niche microbiomes, Sheiman believes.

The team is now feeding the bug that breaks down lactic acid to mice to study its effect on acid levels and fatigue. There is also interest in finding out more about the effects of the microbiome on mental toughness and endurance, Sheiman says – for example, having more energy could help athletes to keep better focused.

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