Bacteria can easily pass bits of DNA to one another. This process, known as horizontal gene exchange, allows bacteria to share genes that enable them to resist the effects of antibiotics. A new study has shown that bacteria can use this mechanism to pass other things to each other too, such as certain crucial nutrients like vitamin B12.
More than just a side effect of digestion, vitamin B12 plays an important role in helping our cells function properly. The gut microbes which help us break down food and absorb nutrients also require their own supply of this vital nutrient-they share it using what’s called horizontal gene exchange process “bacterial sex.”
Researchers combined bacteria that are able to take up B12 and bacteria that cannot. Once they were together, they were able to share vitamin B12. The cells formed a tube, a sex pilius, to move it. Any bacteria that were unable to transfer B12, but were able to sustain life were found to have acquired the genes that are needed to move B12. Incredibly, this experiment also worked when the researchers studied the phenomenon in the gut of a living mouse. They used a type of common human gut bacteria called Bacteroides, which are known to break down large carbohydrates so they can be digested, supplying our bodies with energy.
Gut bacteria are also important to maintaining a healthy lining in the gut that keeps out nasty pathogens and prevents infections from taking hold. The more we know about a healthy microbiome, the easier it will be to tailor an individual’s gut microbiome for better health.