The great outdoors: promoting health through bacteria

Posted 14 Feb 2022

New research at Flinders will examine the outdoor environment’s potential for supplying health-beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria to people.

Half of the world’s seven billion people live in cities. This figure is set to increase to more than 70 per cent by the year 2030. Urbanisation has resulted in unintended outcomes, including a decrease in human exposure to biodiverse outdoor microbiomes – the community of microorganisms in a particular environment – that provide important health functions.

Contact with environmental microbiomes from natural environments has benefits for the human immune system, airways, skin and gut, and also provides exposure to butyrate-producing bacteria, regularly found in soil and air.

Butyrate-producing bacteria have important functions in both outdoor ecosystems and the human gut: they break down organic matter and produce butyrate as a metabolite.

Reduced butyrate-producing bacteria in humans has been linked to conditions such as asthma, allergies, inflammatory bowel diseases, colorectal cancer, obesity and multiple sclerosis, but researchers at Flinders University want to dig deeper.

Dr Martin Breed and his team have received a Flinders Foundation Health Seed Grant to conduct the first study into how the outdoor environment acts as a pathway of butyrate-producing bacteria to humans, and how microbial biodiversity might influence this pathway.

“With rapid urbanisation and rising health spending, this is a problem of high significance. Our goal is to produce a new, cost-effective way to improve human gut butyrate-producing bacteria assemblages and present a possible solution to these pressing health issues,” Dr Breed said.

“Our goal is to work with health and environment policymakers, management agencies, and practitioners on the potential for public health gains via exposure to health-promoting butyrate producing bacteria from outdoor environments.

“It should be possible to not only encourage people to spend time in locations within the city that supply a great richness in butyrate-producing bacteria, but also to restore ecosystems that supply these butyrate-producing bacteria into areas that aren’t so rich in these microbes.

“This has potential to be an innovative and cost-effective strategy, which leverages the rapidly developing microbiome science.”

Research category: Public Health

Project title: The great outdoors: promoting health through bacteria 

Lead researcher: Dr Martin Breed


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