Bacteria non-stop having “sex” inside our intestines – and this is very good news

(ORDO NEWS) — The human gut is a place where an unbridled orgy of microbes constantly takes place. In order to survive, the bacteria in our digestive tract regularly have “sex” with each other.

This debauchery has a practical purpose, as microbes exchange secrets on how to survive lethal doses of antibiotics.

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California at Riverside have found that the process of copulation and interbreeding of microorganisms is actually beyond what we previously knew.

How does it work

Bacteria don’t have genitals, of course, but technically “sex” in biology refers to any process of exchanging genetic material. Thus, by forming a “temporary alliance” with another bacterium in our gut, a microbe can pass on its genes to another—and they can be completely different species.

All a microbe has to do is stick out a tube, called a pilus, and attach itself to another cell, releasing a portable package of DNA, called a mobile genetic element, when ready.

The discovery of bacterial “sex” was made more than 70 years ago, when scientists realized that the secret of horizontal gene transfer is that microbes exchange genes for resistance to certain antibiotics, thereby spreading it between species.

More recently, it has become clear that bacterial sex happens all the time, and it is probably through this process that our microbiome keeps itself fit and healthy. The new study was conducted among gut microbes called Bacteroidetes, which make up up to 80% of the human microbiome and help digest food.

However, in order to colonize the human gut and help us break down carbohydrates, these microbes must compete for limited resources in the colon. Such resources include vitamin B12 and other related compounds that promote bacterial metabolism and protein synthesis.

Most microbes in the gut are unable to synthesize these essential compounds on their own, which means they must absorb them from the environment. And for this to be effective, you need to have the genes for transporting vitamin B12 at the ready.

When two gut microbes were placed on a cup in the lab, the researchers noticed a strange alliance. A bacterium that could not synthesize B12 “transport systems” bonded with a bacterium that did.

After the experiment, the researchers examined the genome of the host bacterium (which was alive and well) and found that it included an extra strand of DNA from the donor.

Why is it important? In the future, the selection of the “right” genes may allow doctors to form resistant microbiomes that will save humanity from many problems – for example, help to absorb lactose for those who cannot do it on their own.

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