Exploring the gut microbiomes of highly trained endurance athletes

Research into the influence of the microbiome — the collection of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that live in and on us — on human health is still a relatively new field. Nonetheless, many intriguing associations have been discovered, including potential microbiome roles in metabolism, immunity and even mental health. But how might the microbiome affect people in a different context: athletic performance? Does the composition of highly trained athletes’ microbiomes differ from that of other people, and what role might microbes play in the competitive landscape?

Jackson Laboratory postdoctoral associate (and professional cyclist) Lauren Petersen, Ph.D., is exploring this intriguing topic. In a paper recently published in Microbiome, Petersen and JAX Professor George Weinstock, Ph.D., present findings from a pilot study that indicate elite endurance athlete microbiomes may indeed differ from others in consistent and possibly important ways. Of particular note are the prevalence of a particular microbial genus, Prevotella, and the activity of the archaeon Methanobrevibacter smithii (M. smithii).

Working with 22 professional and 11 amateur cyclists, Weinstock and Petersen found that they divided into three sub-groups of microbial diversity and prevalence that didn’t correlate with performance level. On the other hand, both professional and amateur cyclists who maintained extremely rigorous training regimens — more than 16 hours of exercise per week — had a very high percentage of Prevotella in their gut microbiomes, averaging more than 12 percent. Other observations, including in those with lighter training regimens in this study, show that most people have negligible levels, here averaging 0.15%. Also, looking at microbial gene expression revealed that the professional cyclists had high levels of M. smithii activity compared to those of the amateurs.

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What might this mean? It’s possible that Prevotella is associated with diets high in complex carbohydrates, which is typical of endurance athletes, especially those who need a significant amount of fuel for extended workouts. It’s also involved in amino acid synthesis, which may be advantageous for recovery. The M. smithii finding also sparks interest, as this microbe is involved in methane metabolism. Research suggests that high M. smithii activity yields a more energetically efficient gut microbiome, which would provide obvious advantages for endurance athletes.

More inquiry is planned into the associations presented, using more participants, more extensive dietary and environmental data, and sedentary and/or less active control groups. And the actual mechanisms behind the findings remained to be teased out, including how exercise shapes the composition of the microbiome versus how the composition of the microbiome shapes athletic performance. Nonetheless, the findings so far indicate that the microbiome might indeed play a role in what separates a good from a great athlete — and both from a couch potato.

Petersen LM, Bautista EJ, Nguyen H, Hanson BM, Chen L, Lek SH, Sodergren S, Weinstock GM. 2017. Community characteristics of the gut microbiomes of competitive cyclists. Microbiome 5:98 https://doi.org/10.1186/s40168-017-0320-4