Researchers from Oregon State University (United States) have discovered that a common type of gut bacteria sometimes associated with inflammation, abscesses, intestinal diseases, and cancer has an important positive aspect: it seems help prevent cardiovascular disease.

The findings, published in the journal mSystems, suggest the possibility of probiotic treatments for atherosclerosis, the dangerous accumulation of fats, cholesterol and other substances in the arteries that cause strokes and heart attacks and which is related to smoking, diet, age and a number of genetic causes.

The diets high in animal foods have long been considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, as such diets are an important source of trimethylamine (TMA) which is converted by the liver to another compound, trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which promotes the accumulation of fatty plaque in the arteries.

“The connection between TMAO and cardiovascular disease has tended to focus the conversation on how diets of animal origin they have negative health consequences. But by analyzing data from fundamental studies of gut microbiomes, we uncovered evidence that a type of bacteria associated with eating meat can take TMA, as well as TMA precursors, and metabolize them without producing any TMAO. That means those bacteria are, in effect, cutting a key link in the chain of cardiovascular disease, “explains lead study author Veronika Kivenson.

The bacteria are of the genus ‘Bilophila’ and the evidence suggests that an expanded genetic code allows your metabolism, through a demethylation pathway, to bypass TMAO production. Furthermore, research shows that animal-based diets cause a rapid increase in ‘Bilophila’ in the intestine.

“It has been shown that organisms in the stomach affect the development of a myriad disease states. But the mechanisms – what is really going on behind the connections between diet, health, and the microbiota – have generally been difficult to pin down. More research is needed on the biology and ecology of ‘Bilophila’ cells, but our study presents a clearly defined mechanism with potential for great impact on human health“says study co-author Steve Giovannoni.

Identified only 31 years ago in an infected appendix, ‘Bilophila’ is a gram-negative anaerobic rod which is classified as a pathobio, an organism that normally has a symbiotic relationship with its host, but which can become disease causing in certain circumstances. It is commonly present in the microbiomes of people who are healthy.

“The data we have reviewed shows that there is significantly more ‘Bilophila’ in the microbiomes of healthy people compared to those with cardiovascular disease, and that bilophila numberincreases in response to a meat-based diet compared to a plant-based diet. Our findings suggest that the role of Bilophila in the microbiome and in human health may depend on the specific context and that its potential as a probiotic that mitigates the role of animal products in heart disease should be studied further, “concludes Kivenson.