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Neanderthals’ gut microbiota already contained some beneficial micro-organisms that are also found within our own intestine. An international research group headed by the University of Bologna achieved this result by extracting and analyzing ancient DNA from 50,000-year-old fecal sediments sampled at the archaeological site of El Salt, near Alicante (Spain).
Published in Communication Biology, their paper puts forward the hypothesis of the existence of ancestral components of human microbiota that have been living in the human gastrointestinal tract since prior to the separation between the Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals that occurred more than 700,000 years back.
“These results enable us to understand which components of the human gut microbiota are essential for our health, as they are integral elements of our biology also from an evolutionary point of view” explains Marco Candela, the professor of the Department of Pharmacy and Biotechnology of the University of Bologna, who coordinated the study.
“Nowadays there is a progressive reduction of our microbiota diversity due to the context of our modern life: this research group’s findings could direct us in devising diet- and – lifestyle-tailored solutions to counteract this phenomenon”.
The issues of this”contemporary” microbiota The gut microbiota is the selection of trillions of symbiont micro-organisms that populate our gastrointestinal tract. It represents an essential part of our biology and carries out important functions in our bodies, such as regulating our metabolism and immune system and protecting us from pathogenic micro-organisms.
The process of depletion of the gut microbiota in modern western urban populations could represent a significant wake-up call. This depletion process would become particularly alarming if it involved the loss of those microbiota components that are crucial to our physiology.”
Simone Rampelli, Study First Author and Researcher, University of Bologna
Recent studies have shown how some features of modernity – such as the consumption of processed food, drug use, life in hyper-sanitized environments – lead to a critical decrease in biodiversity from the gut microbiota. This depletion is mainly because of the loss of a set of germs known as”old friends”.
Indeed, there are some alarming signs. By way of instance, in the West, we’re witnessing a dramatic rise in cases of chronic inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.
How do we identify the elements of the gut microbiota that are more important for our health? And how can we protect them with targeted solutions? This was the starting point behind the idea of identifying the ancestral traits of our microbiota – i.e. the core of the human gut microbiota, which has remained consistent throughout our evolutionary history.
Technology nowadays allows to successfully rise to this challenge thanks to a new scientific field, paleomicrobiology, which studies early germs from archaeological remains through DNA sequencing.
The research group analyzed ancient DNA samples collected in El Salt (Spain), a website where many Neanderthals lived. To be more precise, they analyzed the ancient DNA extracted from 50,000 years old sedimentary feces (the earliest sample of fecal material available to date).
In this way, they were able to piece together the composition of this micro-organisms populating the intestine of Neanderthals. By comparing the composition of the Neanderthals’ microbiota to ours, many similarities sparked.
“Through the analysis of ancient DNA, we were able to isolate a heart of germs shared with modern Homo sapiens”, explains Silvia Turroni, a researcher at the University of Bologna and first author of the study. “This finding allows us to state that these ancient micro-organisms populated the intestine of our species prior to the separation between Sapiens and Neanderthals, which happened about 700,000 years ago”.
Safeguarding the microbiota These ancestral elements of the human gut microbiota incorporate many well-known bacteria (one of which Blautia, Dorea, Roseburia, Ruminococcus, and Faecalibacterium) that are fundamental to our health. Indeed, by producing short-chain fatty acids from dietary fiber, these bacteria regulate our immune and metabolic balance.
There is also the Bifidobacterium: a microorganism playing a key role in regulating our immune defenses, especially in early childhood. Finally, in the Neanderthal gut microbiota, researchers identified some of the”old friends”.
This affirms the researchers’ hypotheses about the ancestral nature of the components and their latest depletion in the human gut microbiota because of our contemporary life context.
“In today’s modernization scenario, in which there is a progressive decrease in microbiota diversity, this information could guide integrated diet- and lifestyle-tailored approaches to safeguard the micro-organisms that are essential to our health”, concludes Candela.
“To this end, promoting lifestyles that are sustainable for our gut microbiota is of the utmost importance, as it will help maintain the configurations that are compatible with our biology”.