In a study that may someday lead to new strategies to fight obesity, scientists have found that gut bacteria, or microbiome, regulates fat uptake and storage by hacking into and changing the function of the circadian clocks in the cells that line the gut.
“Our work provides a deeper understanding of how the gut microbiota interacts with the circadian clock, and how this interaction impacts metabolism,” said Lora Hooper, Professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in the US.
“It could also help to explain why people who work the night shift or travel abroad frequently – which disrupts their circadian clocks – have higher rates of metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” Hooper, lead author of the study published in the journal Science, added.
Many of the body’s metabolic pathways are synchronised with day-night cycles via the circadian clock.
In mammals, the circadian clock is a collection of transcription factors present in every cell that drive rhythmic, 24-hour oscillations in the expression of genes that govern body processes such as metabolism.
“These findings indicate a mechanism by which the intestinal microbiota regulate body composition and establish the circadian transcription factor NFIL3 as the essential molecular link among the microbiota, the circadian clock, and host metabolism,” Hooper said.
In their experiments, the researchers compared germ-free mice lacking a microbiome — raised in a sterile environment — and conventionally raised mice and also studied knockout mice genetically unable to make NFIL3 in the cells lining the intestines.
So how exactly does the gut microbiome “talk” to the intestinal lining to regulate fat uptake and storage through NFIL3?
When the researchers studied this question, they uncovered an interesting twist, finding that the gut microbiome regulates lipid (fat) uptake by hacking into the circadian clocks that are present in the cells that line the gut.
The hacking affects the amplitude, or robustness, of how genes driving the lipid uptake and storage cycle are expressed.
Germ-free mice lacking a microbiome have lower-than-average production of NFIL3, meaning that they take up and store less lipid and therefore remain lean, even on a high-fat diet, the scientists explained.
The body’s circadian clocks sense the cycles of day and night – which are closely linked to feeding times – and turn on and off the body’s metabolic machinery as needed.
Even though gut cells are not directly exposed to light, their circadian clocks capture light cues from the visual and nervous systems and use them to regulate gene expression.
The gut’s circadian clock helps to regulate the expression of NFIL3 and hence the lipid metabolic machinery that is controlled by NFIL3 in the intestinal lining, the study said.