Spring Conference 2021: Gut Microbiome and Health

Published online: 7 April 2021

Over 340 delegates from across 22 countries tuned in to attend the Nutrition Society’s online Spring Conference 2021. Organised by the Society’s Scottish Section, scientific experts gathered online on 29 and 30 March to share and discuss their findings and experience in research surrounding the gut microbiome and health.

The gastrointestinal tract and its hugely diverse population of microbial species makes up one of the densely populated ecosystems on earth. Significant interest in this field has been sparked in recent years, leading to a large number of studies drawing links between host nutrition and health of the gut microbiota as well as the interrelated metabolic and immune functions that effect human health.

Day one

Scientific Programme Organisers Dr Derek Ball, University of Aberdeen, and Dr Spiridoula Athanasiadou, Scotland’s Rural College, welcomed all delegates before Dr Laura Glendinning, University of Edinburgh took the audience through the various computational methods used to study microbial populations. Highlighting the diverse methods used to study microbiota, Dr Glendinning discussed the advantages of producing “omic” datasets such as transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics to assess in vivo microbiota function.

Symposium one then explored the impact of nutrition on the gut microbiome. Dr Petra Louis, University of Aberdeen, set the scene by looking at the influence of diet on functional groups within the gut microbiome. The microbiota play a crucial role in degrading non-digestible dietary carbohydrates (or fibre) but importantly, the physiochemical characteristics of dietary fibre strongly influence which microbiota can degrade it. There is therefore a certain level of functional redundancy that exists as many microbes provide the same function. Considering that there are only a limited number of microbes with the ability to ferment specific fibre types, further work is a needed to better understand how different microbes work together if we are to effectively modulate the gut microbiota through diet; and this may require a more personalised approach. 

Dr Gillian Gardiner, Waterford Institute of Technology, used the ECO-FCE (A whole-systems approach to optimising feed efficiency and reducing the ecological footprint of mono gastrics) project to explore the links between the intestinal microbiota and growth and feed efficiency in pigs. Despite the challenges in reliably identifying microbial predictors for pig growth and feed efficiency, it appears that bacterial taxa with anti-inflammatory effects are consistently linked with improved productivity. Professor Ian Rowland, University of Reading, concluded the symposium with a focus on the microbial pathways and microorganisms involved in the metabolism of various dietary substrates. It is evident that the gut microbiota plays a major and complex role in the breakdown and transformation of dietary compounds into highly bioactive products that have cell signalling activity and may modify levels of satiety hormones or induce apoptosis and differentiation in cancer cells.

Dietary fibre is the gut microbiota’s main food source and Professor Christine Edwards, University of Glasgow, opened symposium two with an excellent explanation around the interactions that exist between dietary fibre and the gut microbiota. Professor Edwards showed how these interactions, and their subsequent impact on human health, may be influenced by the amount and type of fibre consumed and how it is presented as it enters the gut. There is still so much we are yet to understand, and as the health impacts vary greatly from person to person, there is a need for better tracers, reporting, and a personalised approach to fully understand the health impacts of these interactions. Professor Konstantinos Gerasimidis, Univeristy of Glasgow, followed with an insightful talk on how diet therapy to manipulate the gut microbiota may be used to control Crohn’s disease. He discussed a novel food based dietary therapy (CD-TREAT) now being tested in a multi-centre trial in Scotland that has successfully shown disease remission and reduced gut inflammation in a small pilot study. Professor Gary Frost, Imperial College London, ended the symposium alongside Dr Douglas Morrison, University of Glasgow, as they looked at the role of short chain fatty acids (SCFA) generated by the microbiota in metabolic and cardiovascular health. The rates, ratio, site, and extent of SCFA production are the result of a complex interplay between the regional availability and fermentation of fibre, and the composition and activity of the gut microbiota. Whilst animal and cell model studies support a range of potential health benefits of SCFA, there are several challenges in defining causal pathways in humans which has limited the translation of evidence into dietary advice.

During an afternoon break in the programme, 28 Oral Communication sessions allowed delegates to further explore other research areas and discuss outcomes with researchers who were presenting their own findings.

Day one ended with Catriona Thomson and Matevz Arcon, the Scottish Section Student Chairs discussing their experience as Nutrition Society members and how membership has benefited their nutrition careers to date. This was then followed by a well attended workshop delivered by Registered Nutritionist Zoe Griffiths who gave attendees some useful tips on successfully pursuing a career in nutrition. 


Day Two 

The final symposium of the conference examined the interactions between pathogens and the gut microbiota. Assistant Professor Lisa Reynolds, University of Victoria, presented her research investigating how helminth infection alter the small intestine metabolome to promote fecundity, possibly as a result of upregulating levels of branched short chain fatty acids. Professor Georgina Hold, University of New South Wales, then looked at the possible links between the gut microbiome and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Whilst there is evidence to suggest that gastrointestinal microbiota disturbances (dysbiosis) play a critical role in IBD pathogenesis, there is remains a lot to understand, particularly in terms of how temporal changes in the gut microbiota contribute to the disease and how the gut microbiota may affect treatment efficacy. Dr Amanda Rossiter, University of Birmingham, concluded the symposium, showing how using 2D gastric organoids had been used to determine the role that H. pylori and the gastric microbiota play in the early stages of gastric carcinogenesis. Whilst data-rich microbiota studies continue to grow, Dr Rossiter highlighted the importance of understanding the mechanisms that underpin changes to the gastric microbiota to fully determine whether these bacteria are ‘drivers’ or ‘passengers’ of gastric carcinogenesis. 

Professor Paul O’Toole, University College Corke concluded the conference with a final plenary lecture looking at diet-microbe-health interactions in the elderly. Professor O’Toole explained that ageing related microbiome changes are associated with low diversity diets, and that this correlated with increased frailty. Adhering to a Mediterranean type diet rich in pre-biotics can have a measurable effect on the human gut microbiota and may also delay the onset of age-related health loss. 

Whilst diet clearly plays a crucial role in the health of our gut microbiome, non-dietary factors cannot be overlooked as the gut microbiota is impacted by a plethora of factors throughout the life course.  

Speakers took questions during the lively panel discussions that followed each symposia, as well as online via Twitter #NSSPRING21 throughout the conference.  It was evident amongst the speakers that recognising the importance of the gut microbiota in human health and disease has been one of the most exciting breakthroughs in clinical medicine. To a large extent, this has been the result of ‘omics’ technologies that have allowed large scale analysis of genetic and metabolic profiling of the microbial community and offers the possibility of a new route for therapeutic intervention or even disease prevention.

The Society would like to thank the Scottish Section for hosting the conference and Yakult, Quorn, Bimuno and Nutrium for supporting the conference, as well as delegates for their valuable engagement and thoughtful questions throughout the course of the two days.

Papers exploring the topics covered will be available in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society over the coming months and the collection of papers within the Gut Collection will remain open access until 30 April.