The Origin of Postbiotics

The study of intestinal flora can be traced back to the early 1900s, when the Russian microbiologist, Elie Metchnikoff began working with Louis Pasteur at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) made breakthrough discoveries regarding vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization. His medical discoveries enabled him to create cures for many of the world’s major killer diseases during his time including rabies, anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera, and smallpox. It’s been said that a modern-day equivalent of his achievements would be if one scientist today single-handedly created cures for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Although Pasteur’s accomplishments are incredible, he also ushered in the widespread belief that germs are the cause of diseases, which initiated the germ theory of disease. (1) This resulted in the era of antibiotic drugs and a century of bacteria-phobia. What over-prescribing of antibiotics has done over the past several decades has resulted in microbiome destruction, weakened immune systems, and the rise of deadly antibiotic-resistant “superbug” infectious diseases.

The Founding Father of Probiotics

Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) was a Russian-born scientist who developed an interest in the study of beneficial microbes. In 1888, Metchnikoff traveled to Paris to meet Pasteur and ask Pasteur’s advice regarding some difficulties he was experiencing with his research. Pasteur was impressed with Metchnikoff and invited him to stay, setting him up with his personal laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. 

At the Pasteur Institute in the early 1900s, Metchnikoff became increasingly interested in the notion of how and why humans age. During his study of 36 countries, he compiled statistics and learned that Bulgaria had an exceptionally long average lifespan in the early 1900s of 87 years; moreover, he found that four out of every thousand Bulgarians lived past 100 years of life.

Metchnikoff believed that the aging process resulted from the activity of “bad” bacteria that produce toxic substances in the intestinal tract. According to Metchnikoff, they were responsible for what he referred to as “intestinal auto-intoxication,” which caused the physical deterioration and breakdown associated with aging.

And then, Metchnikoff had a tremendous intuitive insight that made him the “Founding Father of Probiotics.” Metchnikoff believed that the long healthy lifespans of Bulgarians was related to their daily consumption of fermented milk products like yogurt and kefir. He knew the bacteria responsible for the fermentation of milk produced lactic acid, which created an acidic environment in the GI tract. He theorized that the lactic acid created an environment blocking the growth of “bad” bacteria. The result was a reduction of “intestinal auto-intoxication,” which resulted in better health and longer life.

It's not common to trace a global dietary trend to one single event, but the modern yogurt industry was birthed in the lecture hall of the Society of French Agriculturalists in Paris on June 8, 1904. This just so happens to be the day Metchnikoff delivered a public lecture titled, “Old Age.” He nor anyone else could have ever known what the revolutionary impact this day would have on future generations worldwide.  

In 1908, nearly twenty years of working as the Director of Research at Pasteur Institute, Metchnikoff won the Nobel Prize for medicine for his discovery of phagocytosis and its importance to the immune system. (2)

Phagocytosis at first sounded so outlandish that Metchnikoff’s theory of immunity was branded “an oriental fairy tale” by one prominent contemporary researcher. It was ultimately accepted, and the Nobel Prize was presented to him. However, it would take nearly 100 years for scientists to fully appreciate the roles that phagocytes play in the body.

The Modern Era of Microbiome Science

Side note: The human microbiome refers to the organisms (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that reside in and on our body. When using microbiome in this article, it is being limited to the bacteria that reside in the gastrointestinal tract.

The Human Genome Project, which cost an estimated $3 billion, was a 13-year (1990-2003) project that resulted in the first successful sequencing of the human genome. Scientists had hoped that sequencing the human genome would lead to cures for many of today’s chronic degenerative diseases. That goal failed, and as we know, sequencing the human genome never led to successful treatments for any diseases.

However, one great benefit that emerged from the Human Genome Project was the development of incredible technology, which allows scientists to sequence genomes at a fast, affordable pace. For example, in January 2017, Illumina, which is the world’s leading producer of next-generation sequencing technology, announced that their new NovaSeq™ could sequence a genome in one day for only $100. (3) 

The incredible power and speed of the new gene sequencing technology were partly responsible for the government’s funding of the Human Microbiome Project (2007-2012). (4) Subsequently, the Human Microbiome Project resulted in the publication of over 350 studies, which are viewed as the “birth” of the modern era of microbiome science.

Nena Dockery, Scientific and Regulatory Manager at Stratum Nutrition, explains, “There was a tremendous amount of knowledge gained from the Microbiome Project and subsequent research on the human microbiome. Families of microbes (mostly bacteria) were identified and their relative numbers began to be associated with various health benefits and disease susceptibility. Some of the bacterial species that were shown to be particularly beneficial were isolated from human or food sources and commercially grown as a supplemental source of these beneficial species – and the probiotics industry took off.  Along the way, it was discovered how important specific strains of bacteria were, which narrowed commercialization down to bacterial strains that could be patented for their benefits.

Prebiotics then began to become recognized as food sources both for the supplemented probiotics and to encourage growth of the body’s own beneficial species.  If combined in a product with specific The New Frontier in Microbiome Sciencebacteria shown to thrive with certain prebiotics, the term “synbiotic” was used.”

Dockery continues, “And that is where the research began to get very interesting. As part of the research on the body’s native bacteria, it was found that certain bacteria produce byproducts of their metabolism that have substantial benefits to their human host. For example, some produce digestive enzymes, like lactase.  Lactase breaks down milk protein (lactose) and its absence in the body leads to lactose intolerance. Other bacteria, especially those in the colon produce short-chain fatty acids, such as butyrate, that are very protective against the development of colon cancer.  Of course, this type of research was a big Ah Ha moment for scientists because the microbes (again mostly bacteria) could produce these byproducts in the broth used to ferment them for commercial production into probiotics; and that resulted in a further study that led to the introduction of postbiotics. 

Currently, there is no consistency in what constitutes a postbiotic.  Some companies market products identified as postbiotics that are a blend of the beneficial by-products of microbial metabolism found in the supernatant or even single by-products such as butyrate. However, the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) has tentatively set the definition as 'A preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host'.  This definition includes the presence of killed microbial cells and cell fragments (usually from heat treatment) but notably omits the requirement of the supernatant, though it could be included in a postbiotic product. 

Postbiotics do appear to be the trend in the Biotics industry.  Whether a postbiotic ends up being defined as the beneficial components of microbial fermentation, the heat-treated microbial cells themselves, or a combination of the two, they do have some distinct manufacturing and marketing advantages over probiotics. Since they are not live microbes, shelf stability and survival through the gut can be much more predictable.”

Conclusion

A pronounced shift is taking place in microbiome science. Until recently, a large portion of scientific research was devoted to isolating, identifying, and naming different species of bacteria. In the new frontier of microbiome science, scientists are now able to dig deeper into the -biotics and study various strains and their individual health benefits. As this year unfolds, we are beginning to see postbiotics gain momentum.

A postbiotic, as defined by The International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), is “a preparation of inanimate micro-organisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the target host.” (5)

At Stratum, we look forward to helping finish product brands become pioneers in the microbiome space with the efficacy and flexibility of the postbiotic ingredient, LBiome™.

The decision to formulate with the pioneer of postbiotics, LBiome™, has never been easier.

 

 

References:

1.      1. Dubos RJ. Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science. London: Victor Gallancz, Ltd.: 1951.

2.      2. Metchnikoff: Nobel Prize.
https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1908/mechnikov/biographical/

3.      Illumnia Press Release: https://www.illumina.com/company/news-center/press-releases/press-release-details.html?newsid=2236383.

4.      The NIH Human Microbiome Project. https://www.genome.gov/pages/about/nachgr/february2018agendadocuments/hmp_talk_feb_council_final_0206

5.      Salminen S, Collado MC, Endo A, Hill C, Lebeer S, Quigley EMM, Sanders ME, Shamir R,Swann JR, Szajewska H, Vinderola G. Expert consensus document: The International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on the definition and scope of postbiotics. In Press.