From the December 11, 2013 National Geographic:
By setting ten volunteers on either a vegetarian menu or a carnivorous one,Lawrence David from Duke University and Harvard University’s Peter Turnbaugh have shown that when our diet changes, our gut bacteria react very quickly. Within days, some species step into the limelight, while others fade into the background. They activate different genes, pull off different metabolic tricks, and secrete different substances. Our microbiome, it seems, can rapidly switch between plant-eating and meat-eating modes.
David’s team wanted to see what happens over days. If you flood your gut with different food, how long does it take for your microbiome to react?
They did this by recruiting ten volunteers who were willing to collect daily faecal samples. They each ate two different diets for five straight days —a plant-based one that was rich in grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables, and an animal-based one composed of meat, eggs and cheese.
In general, the animal diet led to more dramatic changes than the plant one.
David and Turnbaugh’s team also found that the altered gut communities did different things. During the plant diet, they became better at breaking down carbohydrates; during the animal diet, protein digestion was their forte. On the meat-heavy days, they activated more genes for breaking down harmful chemicals found in charred meat, and for making vitamins.
And these changes happened very quickly. Some were obvious by day one. By day four, you could pick up a stool sample, list the active genes within it, and predict with total accuracy which diet the owners had been on.
Just two days after the volunteers stopped their diets, things were back to normal. The gut microbiome, it seems, is a fickle beast—easily changed, but not permanently so. The team also found that our food doesn’t just change the microbes that already exist in the gut—they also add some new ones.
The point is that our gut microbiomes are more flexible than we previously thought. A recent study showed that most of the strains in our guts stay there for decades or more. But while the roster is clearly stable, their relative numbers fluctuate a lot, and food-borne newcomers can gain a foothold.