Some bacteria reproduce asexually. Others do it the old-fashioned way with a partner, but apparently, reproduction isn’t the only thing achieved when these critters come together. A new study from UC Riverside revealed that the microbes hiding out in our gut are exchanging vital nutrients, such as vitamin B12, through sexual means.
More than just DNA
This exchange of material in these little creatures is termed horizontal gene transfer, and it is facilitated through a structure called a sex pilus. Previously scientists who study these bacteria knew that this mechanism was used to share genes, but this is the first glimpse into the way that it also shares nutrients.
Study leader Patrick Degnan stated: “We’re excited about this study because it shows that this process isn’t only for antibiotic resistance. The horizontal gene exchange among microbes is likely used for anything that increases their ability to survive, including sharing vitamin B12.”
The paper, published in Cell Reports, discusses how the team proved their hypothesis. Basically, they threw together a mix of bacteria on a petri dish, some with the ability to transfer B12 and some without. By the end of the experiment not only did all the bacteria now contain B12, but they also carried genes giving them the power to transfer the nutrient to other organisms.
Basically, these bacteria are having sex and feeding their partners at the same time.
As well as showing nutrient-transferring “bacterial sex” in the laboratory, the team also proved this happened in mice through tracking the characteristics of bacteria appearing in their feces.
Let’s look after our microbiome
It seems like every day we’re discovering new benefits of the microbiome. Our gut bacteria are essential for a countless number of bodily processes including memory, various diseases, and of course the breakdown of our food. The more we understand how they work and their importance, the better equipped we are to care for them and ourselves.
For advice on how to look after your precious microbiome, check these articles on foods for a healthy gut, how you can easily shift your diet to improve gut health, and some lifestyles changes to aid the effort.
Source study: Cell Reports – Mobilization of vitamin B12 transporters alters competitive dynamics in a human gut microbe