April 25, 2023
Bioactives and the Gut Microbiome
The bioactive menaquinone after being biotransformed by gut bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Introducing Bethany M. Henrick, Ph.D., our new VP of Microbiology, who is steering the growth of Brightseed’s microbiome capabilities. Read below for a Q&A with Dr. Henrick where we dig into fascinating aspects of the gut microbiome and how our gut bacteria and bioactives facilitate our overall health and well-being.
Why did you decide to focus your career on the microbiome?
I’m trained in Medical Sciences and specifically as an immunologist. What the last 10-15 years have highlighted for me is that the microbiome, meaning its composition and how it functions, is involved in pretty much every facet of health, including how our immune system functions. So I wouldn't say I set out for my career to be in the microbiome, I think I was led to the microbiome.
What I bring to the table from a Medical Sciences standpoint, is a holistic perspective of how the microbiome function affects the human host. I'm personally interested in characterizing how bacterial-derived metabolites impact human health, and whether we can modulate the production of these with plant bioactives to improve human health.
What do bioactives have to do with the microbiome?
Simply put, the microbiome alters the plant compounds we consume into forms that our bodies can benefit from and use. Scientifically speaking, biotransformation, which in this instance is the biochemical modification of one chemical compound or a mixture of chemical compounds by microbes that live inside our gut microbiome.
It has been proven that microbes (like those inside the gut microbiome) can biotransform plant compounds into bioactive compounds that the human host can utilize. What this means is that if we don’t have the support of specific microbial pathways to derive the necessary (phyto)nutrients from the plants we consume, we potentially miss out on important plant bioactives.
For example, our bodies cannot process the plant compound, phylloquinone, which exists in green leafy vegetables. It must first be biotransformed by the microbes in our gut to convert it into a compound called menaquinone, which our body utilizes to produce Vitamin K. If our bodies didn’t harbor these essential microbes in our gut to biotransform these compounds, we’d miss out on the ability to derive nutrients like Vitamin K from the greens we’re consuming that are critical for our own health and well-being.
Why is the gut microbiome such an important target for affecting human health?
Because the dysfunction of the microbiome is linked to a number of chronic diseases, even ones plaguing seemingly healthy people.
When I say dysfunction in your gut microbiome it's about how the bacteria in your gut are working together, and what compounds they’re producing. Someone recently told me,
How will Brightseed and Forager be making sense of the complex system of interactions between microbes and plant compounds?
The answer to this question is really twofold:1. The first is furthering the research around microbe biotransformation and developing natural solutions for a lack of microbiome diversity.
We’re studying the interactions between the bacteria in our microbiome, the plants we eat, and the compounds that exist inside of those plants to understand how the bacteria are biotransforming plant compounds into bioactives our bodies can actually utilize.
We’re also looking into ways to remedy a lack of microbiome biodiversity, better explained as a lack of microbe machinery used to biotransform necessary plant compounds into bioactives. Our proposed solution to this problem would be identifying and producing these bioactives ourselves and ingesting them directly in a chemical form that our bodies recognize.
2. The second is identifying ways to target certain aspects of the microbiome that are leading to poor microbiome health.
No one has really found a way to modulate the composition of the microbiome other than unintentionally by antibiotics and a poor diet. Given this, we intend to identify and characterize bioactives that modulate metabolic pathways in target classes of bacteria in the microbiome. In this way, you could alter the composition to decrease disease-associated bacteria or increase the abundance of beneficial classes to improve the function of the ecosystem as a whole.
In your opinion, what makes Brightseed and Forager the most fitting for decoding such a complex system as the gut microbiome?
The predictive capability of Forager® to identify known and unknown plant bioactives that affect human health directly is very high - magnitudes higher than the common way of doing things in pharma. Adapting these predictive capabilities for the microbiome is no small task; however, we have an incredible computational and microbiology team that loves a good challenge, and there are a few previously identified examples that have given us a head start.
I do feel hopeful that we’re taking the right steps to link many of these chronic health diseases back to the microbiome. And I feel like the field as a whole, including Brightseed, is on the cusp of figuring this out.
In your opinion, what is the most fascinating thing you have learned about the microbiome and its effect on human health?
The most unbelievable thing that I've seen is that there are bacterial metabolites (bioactive compounds produced by microbes) that target specific human immune cells while leaving other immune cells alone. This suggests that microbes in the gut microbiome and humans have co-evolved over millennia, which is a humbling thought when you think that we are only starting to uncover these interactions that nature put into place so long ago.
Although the chronic diseases we’re seeing today show the evolutionary relationship between microbes and humans has been somewhat broken, and we need to fix it. And we need to find nature's cues to fix the dysbiotic microbiome.
What’s a fun fact about the microbiome most people don’t know?
I think most people don't realize that there's more genetic potential or genes in our gut microbiome than there are genes that make humans, and not just a little bit more but 100 times more! This means that the genetic capacity of the microbiome is 100 times what our genetic capacity is as humans. The potential of the gut microbiome is simply mind-blowing.
Describe the vision you see for the future once this work has been actualized - no limits to this vision, dream big.
I wholeheartedly believe that the microbiome is linked to many of the diseases that are impacting our lives every day. So, discovering a way to precisely modulate the microbiome and improve its function, would mean a brand new world in medicine - modulation. And if we fast forward 20 years, it could be a brand new world where we’re diagnosing issues earlier on - especially diagnosing a dysfunction within the microbiome. A world where the healthcare system won’t be bogged down by treating the symptoms, as the symptoms simply won't happen. A world where we’ll be preventing chronic disease from happening in the first place.
Dr. Bethany Henrick’s Background:
Dr. Henrick has a Ph.D. in Medical Sciences with a specialty in infection and immunity from McMaster University, Canada, holds multiple patents on immune system modulation, and has served as the principal investigator for multiple projects and publications on the role of the microbiome and early composition to advance infant health.
In addition to her work at Brightseed, she is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln in the Food Science and Technology Department, has been invited to present in front of audiences at the U.N. and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and served as a scientific advisor to the Rwandan Minister of Health, Dr. Daniel Ngamije.