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Meet Dr Gemma Walton

In this video, Dr Gemma Walton to explain how our gut microbiota impacts our health - both positively and negatively.
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Earlier in the course, we met Professor Glen Gibson, who discussed his gut model experiments. In this step, I have come back to the food sciences department to speak with Dr. Gemma Walton about her research on how gut microbes affect our health. So I’m just wondering if you could give us a little more insight into what you actually do here, in terms of how your research fits into studying the human microbiota.
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OK, so a lot of the research that I’m doing in Reading either involves using glass models of the human gut, so we can mock up conditions and add bacteria from faecal samples into these to try and see how bacteria can be manipulated in the gut, and whether these changes can lead to healthy effects. What we can also do, if we get some nice results from these models, is we’ve got the facilities here to also run human intervention studies.
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So we can actually recruit students and people around the local Reading community on board, on our human studies, so we can see the effects directly of these foods on the gut microbiota, or maybe some other health effects on these volunteers, as well. Very interesting. So what is the advantages of changing the actual bacteria in our gut? So we know some bacteria are actually associated with positive health effects, and some gut bacteria conversely are associated with negative effects. So, actually, we can shift the balance of gut bacteria to have more of our positive bacteria. We can actually have good effects on our own health. So how do we promote the good bacteria?
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So we can change our bacteria by changing our diet. So whatever we eat, whatever actually gets down to our guts, then becomes food for our gut bacteria. So things like fibre would actually get down to your gut and be food for your gut bacteria. And we’ve got undigestive proteins, as well, that can get down there. So these can all change the gut bacteria. But, in terms of manipulation of our gut bacteria, there’s a couple of different approaches we could take. We could actually add food– eat a food that’s specific to our gut bacteria. So if we eat a known prebiotic fibre, we can actually boost the bacteria that we want to boost within our large intestines.
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So we can have some naturally occurring prebiotics in things like bananas. But we’d need to eat an awful lot of them to have a prebiotic effect, for example. Or we could take some prebiotic supplements. So these prebiotics are typically fibres, and they’ll feed our good bacteria. And then the other approach is by actually taking some beneficial bacteria. And this is the probiotic approach, so some of the yoghurts that you see on the shelves will contain probiotics. So if you take these, you’re actually topping up some of the good bacteria. So those are two different approaches that can be used. So very interesting to hear what you’re actually doing now. Do you have any research plans for the future? Yeah.
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I’m working on a range of different things. Something that I’m really excited about is the gut-brain axis. So the idea that the bacteria within our guts can produce end products that can actually have an effect on cognitive function. And this could affect things like depression and stress levels, as well. So I think this is a really exciting future area for research. So we’re collaborating with colleagues in psychology to actually see if there’s a gut-brain link, and whether changing the gut bacteria is actually changing some of our cognitive function parameters. So I think this is a really exciting field, and could help, really, with mental health in this channel of research.
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It must be great to be able to fit in with other departments around the University, and I assume that you probably have collaborators around the world, all contributing to helping society in improving human health overall. Brilliant. Thanks a lot, Glen. Thank you.

In this video, I return to the Food Sciences lab to ask Dr Gemma Walton to explain how our gut microbiota impacts our health – both positively and negatively – and what we can do to boost the good microbes to improve our health.

Diagram of a human with the gut highlighted. Arrow from the gut points to a circle labelled good bacteria containing: Lactobacillus, Streptococcus thermophilus, Bifidobacterium. Arrow from the gut points to a circle labelled bad bacteria containing: salmonella typhi, Streptococcus, Helicobacter pylori

Figure 1: Certain species of bacteria that live in the gut are beneficial to human health, whilst others are associated with ill health and some cause disease

If you would like to learn more about the types of foods which are beneficial to the gut microbiota, there is an additional audio clip from my interview with Dr Gemma Walton, or you can read the transcript.

Further reading

This article is from the free online

Small and Mighty: Introduction to Microbiology

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