#FEMSmicroBlog: A call to increase the representation of non-European cohorts in gut microbiome research


For the last decade, gut microbiome research has become very popular as the microbes residing in our gut have shown to be an integral element of our overall health. However, microbiome researchers are now highlighting that there is an unfortunate over-representation of European and westernized cohorts in these studies. The Current Opinion article “Following the Indian Immigrant: Adoption of westernization results in a western gut microbiome and an increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases” in FEMS Microbiology Ecology explores how lifestyle changes impact the gut microbiomes of non-western populations. Leah D’Aloisio and Deanna L Gibson highlight for the #FEMSmicroBlog some drastic differences in the gut microbiomes of healthy individuals from around the world. #FascinatingMicrobes


For more gut microbiome research in non-westernized populations

A person’s lifestyle can greatly impact their gut microbiome and how it responds to its environment. The “modern-day” lifestyle, better referred to as the westernized lifestyle, is quite peculiar in certain practices that differ from those of other global populations.

Some of these practices include higher consumption of processed foods, high exposure to chemicals, over-sanitation, higher rates of caesaran delivery and increased formula-feeding infants. These factors are known to influence the gut microbiome in a developing infant.

In fact, research found that there are significant differences between the gut microbiota of westernized and non-westernized societies. This means that the breadth of our understanding of the gut microbiome is based on studies from only a small portion of the human population.

Westernized and non-westernized individuals have significantly different gut microbiotas.


The inequity in current products & therapies for “gut health”

The vast expansion of our knowledge on the human gut microbiome has made its way into the public, particularly in westernized countries. This conversation has ultimately led to the creation of many products on the market such as probiotics, supplements and cleanses that claim to improve “gut health” or even “change a diseased microbiome within 21 days”.

Yet, there is an underlying problem with these products being marketed to non-westernized individuals. These products may not provide the same benefits to their guts.

Products improving the gut health of westernized individuals may not provide the same benefits to the guts of non-westernized individuals.

For example, probiotics frequently include bacteria such as Lactobacilli spp. and Bifidobacteria spp. However, healthy non-westernized individuals do not naturally harbour high abundances of these bacteria. In fact, these genera are most prominent within westernized populations.

The westernized gut is also associated with chronic inflammation and an increased risk of intestinal disorders. Hence, we need to think twice before advising non-westernized societies to use the current microbiome-based products on the market.


Addressing underrepresented populations in gut microbiome research

While there are several countries with different lifestyles to account for, a place to start focusing on is a country with one of the highest global populations in the world: India. The publication Following the Indian Immigrant: Adoption of westernization results in a western gut microbiome and an increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases” in FEMS Microbiology Ecology explores the differences between the gut microbiome of Indians living in India and how their microbiota may change upon migration to a westernized country.

This Current Opinion focuses on Indians because studies show Indians are at a disproportionately higher risk for inflammatory bowel disease when living in a westernized country. While the reason for this elevated risk is unknown, the gut microbiome is likely involved.

The study suggests that when Indians migrate to westernized countries, their gut microbiome changes substantially to a point at which a person’s gut microbes may no longer be in symbiosis with their body.

Adaptation of the Indian gut microbiome. From Aloisio et al. (2022).

In conclusion, researching the effects of the environment on gut microbial communities is a key component to understanding overall gut health. Future studies should also consider how microbes may interact differently with their hosts depending on the person’s ethnicity and social and cultural practices.


About the authors of this blog

Leah D’Aloisio is a MSc student in the Gibson Lab at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus. She completed her Honours BSc of Biology at McMaster University with a specialty in microbiology, immunology, and virology. Leah is currently studying the effects of westernization on the gut microbiome in Indian populations.

Dr. Gibson is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia on the Okanagan Campus. She is a translational scientist who studies how the gut microbiome develops in response to environmental cues, like dietary patterns, and how this drives immunometabolic responses during inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

About this blog section

The section #FascinatingMicrobes for the #FEMSmicroBlog explains the science behind a paper and highlights the significance and broader context of a recent finding. One of the main goals is to share the fascinating spectrum of microbes across all fields of microbiology.

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The #FEMSmicroBlog welcomes external bloggers, writers and SciComm enthusiasts. Get in touch if you want to share your idea for a blog entry with us!

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