The essential ecosystem of gut microbiota operates very closely to a jungle. According to scientists at Oxford University, the consistent competition between microbes helps in maintaining gut stability that eventually keeps us healthy. The researchers used mathematical modeling to determine how hundreds of species of bacteria manage to successfully co-exist and operate.

Competition Is What Keeps Us Healthy

Published in the journal Science, scientists report that, contrary to popular belief, cooperation between the various species of intestinal bacteria results in destabilization rather than benefit. There is instead a highly competitive environment where beneficial bacteria strive to maintain stability through negative feedback loops that work against the destabilizing effects of species diversity.

This raises the idea that people (hosts) might contribute to the maintenance of this natural stability of gut environment by intervening as ‘ecosystem engineers’ in various ways.

“It has been known for some time that hosts carry large communities of bacteria on and inside their bodies, especially in the digestive tract. It is here that these bugs perform extremely important functions for maintaining our overall health and wellbeing,” stated corresponding author, Kevin Foster, Professor of Evolutionary Biology in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.

Maintaining Stability

There is little information on how these microbial communities remain stable over long periods of time. Researchers assume that since the bacteria are beneficial for us, these communities must be cooperating with each other. However, the current study based on wide-ranging mathematical analysis suggests that the key to a healthy gut is competition.

“Instead of cooperating with each other like plants and bees, where a reduction in one species will bring down the other as well, we think that the bacteria act more like trees competing in a highly populated jungle”.

Understanding The Microbiome

Knowing how our gut bacteria operate is essential for maintaining our health, since they function to breakdown food, offer protection against various pathogens, and also maintain a viable immune system.

Moreover, the microbiome is often highlighted for its ecological stability, which is considered crucial for health and overall wellbeing. Different individuals carry different microbial species; however a particular individual tends to carry the same basic species for extended durations, and major alterations in microbial communities are often linked with illness.

“Our hypothesis states that hosts actively intervene to assist the maintenance of stability created by the competitive environment”, Professor Foster suggested. “One obvious way to do this is via the immune system. Suppressing overabundant bacteria is one way, but another option is to separate different species of good bacteria so they don’t end up overly dependent on each other”.