A team of researchers affiliated with multiple institutions in China, working with colleagues in the United States, has isolated a type of bacteria in the gut of mice that breaks down nicotine. In their article published in the journal The naturethe group describes how they isolated the bacteria and why their discovery could reduce the incidence of fatty liver disease in humans.
Previous studies have shown that cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. In addition to its association with lung disease, cigarette smoking has also been linked to fatty liver disease. In this new effort, the researchers have found that a specific type of bacteria breaks down nicotine in the intestines of mice (due to forced smoking), thereby reducing the chance of developing fatty liver.
When people (or mice) smoke cigarettes, it has been found that some of the nicotine enters the intestines, leading to an increased risk of fatty liver, which is associated with scarring and in some cases liver cancer.
In this new work, researchers measured the amount of nicotine that reaches the gut by comparing the stool samples of 30 smokers and 30 non-smokers. They did the same with mice and found similar results.
Next, they disinfected the intestines of some lab mice and ran the nicotine experiment again. They found that the mice with sterile guts had more nicotine in their systems, suggesting that at least one type of gut bacteria was breaking down the nicotine. Then, by a process of elimination, they were able to track down the bacteria (Bacteroides xylanisolvens) that was responsible for the breakdown – it was producing a type of enzyme that breaks down nicotine.
Previous studies have shown that B xylanisolven also lives in the human intestine. The researchers next plan to study it and the enzymes it produces to see if the enzyme can be produced commercially and given to smokers to reduce their chances of developing fatty liver and thus liver cancer.
Bo Chen et al., Gut bacteria reduce smoking-related NASH by breaking down nicotine in the gut, The nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05299-4
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