Gut feeling for improving health

For almost 60 years, the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) has closely followed the life course of roughly a third of Wisconsin high school graduates from the class of 1957.

Subjects of the project known as the “Happy Days Study” — one of the most consistent, comprehensive, and expansive studies of aging and health in America — have contributed their time for repeated, highly detailed surveys of health, family life, and employment.

Now, with the advent of new high-throughput genetic sequencing technologies, a new frontier beckons: the microbiome.

In our gut, each of us has a unique ecosystem composed of hundreds of species of microorganisms. Together with their genes, this collection of microorganisms is known as the microbiome. Humans and other animals are utterly dependent on these microbial hitchhikers.

“We know relatively little about the gut microbiome,” explains Pamela Herd, a professor of public affairs and sociology and the principal investigator of the WLS. “But one of the things that is so interesting about it is its plasticity. The broader environment seems to influence its composition.”

So Herd and her WLS colleagues have embarked on a novel collaboration with the lab of UW-Madison bacteriology Professor Federico Rey. The new effort by WLS and the collaboration with Rey is a rare marriage of biology and social science.

“We have decades of information on social relationships,” says Herd, “and we’re wondering about things like how social relationships affect the microbiome. Every time we shake hands or kiss, we exchange microbes. Some studies have shown that people who are isolated are likely to die younger, but why?”

Exploring the microbiome in the context of the WLS data may help provide some answers because environment and social interaction seem to play such a large role in the composition and changes to the microbiome.

And like genetic information, it may be possible in the future to predict health or prescribe medical interventions based on what your microbiome says about you, says Rey.