The human gut microbiota comprises a diverse microbial consortium closely co-evolved with the human genome and diet. The importance of the gut microbiota in regulating human health and disease has however been largely overlooked due to the inaccessibility of the intestinal habitat, the complexity of the gut microbiota itself and the fact that many of its members resist cultivation and are in fact new to science. However, with the emergence of 16S rRNA molecular tools and “post-genomics” high resolution technologies for examining microorganisms as they occur in nature without the need for prior laboratory culture, this limited view of the gut microbiota is rapidly changing. This review will discuss the application of molecular microbiological tools to study the human gut microbiota in a culture independent manner. Genomics or metagenomics approaches have a tremendous capability to generate compositional data and to measure the metabolic potential encoded by the combined genomes of the gut microbiota. Another post-genomics approach, metabonomics, has the capacity to measure the metabolic kinetic or flux of metabolites through an ecosystem at a particular point in time or over a time course. Metabonomics thus derives data on the function of the gut microbiota in situ and how it responds to different environmental stimuli e.g. substrates like prebiotics, antibiotics and other drugs and in response to disease. Recently these two culture independent, high resolution approaches have been combined into a single “transgenomic” approach which allows correlation of changes in metabolite profiles within human biofluids with microbiota compositional metagenomic data. Such approaches are providing novel insight into the composition, function and evolution of our gut microbiota.
Keywords: Metagenomics, metabonomics, microbiota, human, diet, prebiotic, fibre, intestine, gut
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