The 2021 Balzan Prize awarded to Jeffrey Gordon, the first to identify and study the complex relationships between intestinal bacterial flora and our health
“As a young man I wanted to go to Mars to find new life forms. Then I realized that it was enough to enter our intestine to encounter a world, a fascinating terra incognita teeming with unknown life ». Word of Jeffrey Gordon, the “father” of the microbiota: the expert from Washington University in St. Louis has just received the Balzan Prize 2021 precisely for having founded a new field of research, turning the spotlight on the tens of billions of microorganisms we live with and which have a fundamental role in our state of health.
Jeffrey Gordon was the first to concentrate his studies on intestinal bacterial flora and to understand its importance as early as the mid-1990s when, studying the development of the intestine and the epithelium that covers it, he discovered that bacteria provide “instructions” to the epithelial cells to arrange and function correctly, but also that there are relationships of sharing of nutrients between intestinal cells and microbes. In those years Gordon was able to colonize experimental animals devoid of intestinal flora with populations of bacteria of increasing complexity and diversity coming from the human microbiota: in this way he was able to begin to understand the methods of cooperation and competition between bacterial species and above all their influence on the physiology and pathology of the human host according to its nutritional, metabolic and genetic status.
Microbiota and health
Gordon therefore helped to understand, for example, how the microbiota is linked to childhood obesity and malnutrition: his discovery that transplanting the gut microbiota from genetically obese mice, or from obese humans, into mice devoid of bacteria resulted in an increase in adiposity and altered metabolic phenotypes with respect to the microbiota of a lean donor opened the door to the concept that microbial communities are capable of determining health status. In the field of malnutrition, Gordon found that the program that leads to the establishment of a normal intestinal microbiota is completed within the second year of life but is altered in malnourished children, who remain with an immature microbiota: the expert then identified the strains bacteria that favor the maturation of the microbiota, which later became therapeutic targets in study projects to tackle child malnutrition in developing countries such as Bangladesh. The prestigious recognition of the Balzan Prize International Foundation was conferred on him precisely because he opened a totally new field of medicine and, as stated in the motivation: «His revolutionary scientific discoveries have paved the way for new therapeutic approaches for many devastating diseases. His efforts to achieve a deeper understanding of the interrelationships between the foods we consume and our gut microbial communities promise a fundamental shift in our understanding of how food ingredients are linked to human health and how to address the global challenge of malnutrition. ” .
July 2, 2022 (change July 2, 2022 | 19:12)
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