Wash U Research Links "Gut Microbes" With Malnutrition

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Turns out that William Chignoli (subject of this week's RFT feature) isn't the only guy in town working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to try and make the world a better place.

Scientists from Washington University's Schools of Medicine and Genome Sciences recently received a three year, $5.5 million grant to study the cause of malnutrition, a condition that accounts for half of all child mortality cases worldwide.

The researchers theorize that microscopic bugs in the human intestine make children more predisposed to hunger-related illnesses. 

Severe malnutrition has long been thought to stem simply from a lack of adequate food. Scientists now understand that the condition is far more complex. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a family with multiple children to have only one child who is malnourished, even though the children eat a similar diet and live in the same household. This has led scientists to suspect that other factors may be involved. Gordon and his group theorize that an imbalance of certain types of gut microbes conspires with other factors, such as a poor diet and infection with bugs that cause diarrhea, to trigger malnutrition. 

The human body contains ten times as many microbial cells as human ones, with large numbers residing in the intestines. While some microbes cause illness, most perform vital tasks to ensure the body functions optimally, such as digesting complex carbohydrates found in grains, fruits and vegetables, which the body can't break down on its own. The nutrients and calories extracted by the microbes are used either as energy or stored as fat.

The scientists are studying pairs of infant twins from the countries of Bangladesh and Malawi, a landlocked country in southwestern Africa. They've created a "calorie-dense enriched peanut mixture" (a Snickers bar perhaps?)  that they hope will prevent malnutrition.

The grant is part of a $30 million initiative by the Gates Foundation to fund research into the root causes of malnutrition in the developing world.

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