Could malnutrition be caused by more than a lack of access to quality food?

Science Friday
A market in Russia

A boy takes a meal break at a fruit stall in the central market in Kazan, Russia, August 11, 2015.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

The World Health Organization says malnutrition is a contributing factor in more than one-third of all child deaths worldwide. And lack of access to safe and healthy food is certainly a major part of malnutrition.

But recently published research in the journal Science says food access may not be the only player. There may also be a role for the microbiome.

“We know that this set of disorder is not due to food insecurity alone,” says microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon. Gordon, in addition to being director of the Center of Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington University School of Medicine, is one of the authors of the recent paper on malnutrition.

Malnutrition has long term consequences, including stunted growth, neurodevelopment abnormalities and impaired immune responses. And while scientists and doctors have been able to make advances in reducing mortality among malnourished children, they’re still having difficulty treating long-term consequences.

“We're missing something," Gordon says. "And what might that be ... we were curious to think about another dimension to our development, and that involves our microbial communities. Particularly the largest such community that lives inside of us: our gut microbiota.”

In order to learn more about the role gut microbiota plays in the health of the malnourished, researchers began experimenting on mice. First they collected fecal samples from 6- and 18-month-old children in Malawi. Then they transplanted those samples into mice fed a typical human Malawian diet.

Mice that received samples from healthy children grew and developed better than those that received samples from malnourished children. What’s more, researchers found that the effects were somewhat contagious — a mouse that received one fecal transplant could pass on the associated microorganisms, and their health effects, to germ-free mice housed in the same cage. 

According to Gordon, this research indicates that a “battle of the microbiota” taking place in the gut may play a significant role in health.

Now scientists are trying to focus on ways they could engineer food to introduce the microbiota necessary to promote a healthy gut. They’re hoping they can try the new foods out on malnourished children. 

“We are moving forward in the coming years to test this new types of microbiota-directed foods that are directed at these organisms that we think are instrumental in promoting healthy growth,” Gordon says. 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.