Japanese Guts Are Made for Sushi

Lauren Schenkman, Science Now Daily News (Washington, D.C.), April 7, 2010

Americans don’t have the guts for sushi. At least that’s the implication of a new study, which finds that Japanese people harbor enzymes in their intestinal bacteria that help them digest seaweed–enzymes that North Americans lack. What’s more, Japanese may have first acquired these enzymes by eating bacteria that thrive on seaweed in the open ocean.

Mirjam Czjzek didn’t set out to compare cross-cultural eating habits. Instead, the chemist at the Station Biologique de Roscoff, on the coast of Brittany in France, was interested in what it takes to digest a piece of seaweed. Unlike in land plants, the carbohydrates that make up seaweed are spangled with molecules of sulfur, so special enzymes are needed to break them down.

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{snip} The bacterium in question is known as Bacteroides plebeius, and it has been found only in Japanese people. Wondering whether the enzymes were unique to Japanese individuals, Czjzek’s team compared the microbial genomes of 13 Japanese people with those of 18 North Americans. Five of the Japanese subjects harbored the enzyme, but among the North Americans, “we didn’t find a single one,” says Czjzek, whose team reports its findings tomorrow in Nature.

Where would bacteria inside the human gut get ahold of a seaweed-digesting enzyme? Czjzek speculates that they could have grabbed it from bacteria that live on the seaweed. She notes, for example, that according to tax records dating back to the 8th century C.E., seaweed was used as a form of payment in Japanese society. {snip}

The ability to munch on a few extra carbohydrates might have given these gut bacteria a leg up over their thousands of competitors, says Czjzek. It also may help their human hosts. Because gut bacteria can squeeze energy from carbohydrates that human enzymes can’t break down, these adapted microbes might help Japanese who dine on seaweed get more nutrition from their meal than do North Americans, she says.

Scientists have thought that gut bacteria might pick up genes from other microbes, a process known as lateral gene transfer, “but there hasn’t been an example this clear before,” says Ruth Ley, a microbiologist at Cornell University. “I think it’s the first demonstration of how people’s culture has impacted the [bacteria in the] gut.”

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