The metagenomic revolution

Publication date 19.09.2011

Scientific substantiation of pre- and probiotic health claims

In an attempt to recover damaged consumer trust and to create a more dynamic environment for the food industry, the European Union has harmonized regulations concerning the use of health claims on food products.

In the near future, it will no longer be allowed to advertise a relationship between food consumption and health benefits without providing solid scientific evidence. Both prebiotics and probiotics are functional food ingredients that have the potential to beneficially influence gut health and host immune response through their impact on the human colon microbiota.

Faced with the upcoming implementation of the EU regulation, producers of products containing such ingredients have substantially increased their efforts to come up with hard evidence to support these claims.

Traditionally, and due to technological limitations, dietary intervention studies with pre- and probiotics have focused on the impact on human health without examining the underlying microbiological mechanisms.

Recently, however, advances in sequencing technology have created the opportunity to lift the lid on the human colon ecosystem’s black box through the analysis of the total DNA content of fecal samples. Currently, such metagenomic approaches face two major challenges. The development of innovative computational techniques and a structural microbiological input are required to tackle the enormous amounts of data generated and to facilitate their interpretation. This is where the VUB’s Laboratory for Bio-Informatics and (Eco-) System Biology (BSB) comes in.

Through the application of its combined expertise in bioinformatic tool development and microbial interaction analysis, the BSB Research Group is currently developing an automated analytical tool that will allow full functional characterization of the colon microbiota at a glance. This ecosystem-specific metagenome analysis framework will be used to evaluate the impact of dietary interventions (consumption of (existing or novel) pre- and probiotics) on the composition and activity of the colon microbiota and, hence, on human health and well-being, and thus allow a better substantiation of health claims.

In the longer term, the framework can be used towards the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of colon-related diseases such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel diseases and obesity. This research is carried out in the framework of an IWT research mandate (also called post-doctoral research fellowship, OZM).

Vrije Universiteit Brussel
VIB Department Molecular and Cellular Interactions

Laboratory for Bio-Informatics and (Eco-) System Biology (BSB)
Pleinlaan 2
Building F - 7th floor
B-1050 Brussels
[T] +32 (0)2 629 13 41
[F] +32 (0)2 629 19 02
[W] systemsbiology.vub.ac.be
Head: Jeroen Raes
[E] jeroen.raes@vub.ac.be
Contact research mandate: Gwen Falony
[E] gwen.falony@vub.ac.be