When Ann Arbor locals think of Zingerman’s, they are most likely not considering the establishment as a beacon for medical advancement.
However, bread from Zingerman’s Bakehouse contributed to a new study involving intestinal bacteria and its role in curing intestinal and autoimmune diseases such as yeast infections and Crohn’s disease.
The study, co-conducted by a University professor, found that certain bacteria in the intestines — namely one strain called Bacteroides thetaiotomicron — are able to digest sugars on the surface of yeast, a large and unique component of the human diet. These sugars have previously been discovered to exacerbate many of the symptoms of common intestinal diseases.
Eric Martens, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University Medical School; Wade Abbott, an adjunct professor of chemistry and biology at the University of Lethbridge in Canada and research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; and Harry Gilbert, biochemistry professor at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, collaborated on the study.
With studies currently underway, the researchers hope the Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron bacterium can be developed into a therapeutic for people with diseases such as Crohn’s.
Abbott said distinguishing the bacteria’s relationship with sugar compared to yeast was an important step in moving forward.
“On the surface of the human intestines, there are sugars that are very similar in structure to what you find on yeast, but there are dedicated pathways in this bacteria for digesting human sugars and for digesting yeast sugars,” he said. “(This) suggests that the relationship that bacteria has with the human host is very different from the relationship it has with yeast.”
In their study, the researchers tested their findings on mice, whose digestive tracts are similar to those of humans. To do so, they fed the mice Zingerman’s bread; the company provided 50-percent yeast-leavened breadcrumbs as food samples for the mice.
“Mice don’t have any androgynous bacteria already in their gut so we can put what we want and … the quantity and genetic composition that we want,” Martens said. “So instead of putting one human bacteria on top of hundreds of species of mouse bacteria already there, there’s nothing there. We know exactly what the physiology of the system is.”
Gilbert and Martens teamed up after attending a conference together in 2009, where Gilbert became interested in one of Martens’s previously published papers on fungal cell molecules and intestinal cell walls.
“It really kind of started as a light discussion over a beer or two at conference and a few simple experiments and those few simple experiments turned out to be really interesting,” Martens said. “A lot more detailed studies came after that.”
Martens and Abbott said they were pleased with the study’s results.
“Everyone who becomes a researcher, you know, your whole career or your mission is to do something that actually makes a difference so if, in some small way, this study can lead to a therapy for people suffering from intestinal diseases, that would be very rewarding,” Abbott said.