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Postbiotics May Prevent Diabetes in Obesity

You’ve likely heard about probiotics—live bacteria with long, colorful names found in your yogurt that help generate a happy gut. You may have even heard of prebiotics, which are compounds that have a beneficial effect on the bacteria in your body. But you’re probably less familiar with postbiotics—factors derived from bacteria that can also have a positive impact on our health.

Researchers at McMaster University who study diabetes and obesity have discovered a postbiotic factor called MDP that prevents pre-diabetic obese mice from developing diabetes. Their surprising results were recently published in Cell Metabolism.

When bacteria in the gut become chronically out of balance—known as intestinal dysbiosis [PDF]—a person can become insulin resistant, or prediabetic. Dysbiosis is often found in people with obesity. “Key markers on the road to diabetes are insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance—how well that hormone can lower blood glucose,” Jon Schertzer, lead study author and assistant professor of biochemistry at McMaster University tells Mental Floss. Insulin’s job is to bring your blood glucose back up to normal after you eat or drink something. If you’re insulin resistant, or improperly sensitive, insulin can’t do its job properly. “What a postbiotic does is allow the insulin to do a better job,” he says.

Schertzer’s team sought to investigate whether postbiotics could have an impact on obesity before a person becomes overtly diabetic. “The focus of this study is prediabetes—the stage before the overt disease has developed and it’s still reversible. Obesity is the biggest risk factor for prediabetes,” he explains.

The team found that a postbiotic called muramyl dipeptide (MDP), derived from a bacterial cell wall, was able to reduce insulin resistance in mouse models—regardless of weight loss or changes in the intestinal microbiome during obesity.

To test this, Schertzer separated mice into two groups. One group was given MDP at the same time as they were fed a high-fat diet intended to cause obesity. In that experiment, the mice were given MDP four days per week for five weeks. The MDP injections improved insulin and glucose tolerance after five weeks—remarkably, without altering body mass or fatty tissue levels.

In the second group, the team fed the mice into a state of obesity over 10 weeks, putting them into a state of prediabetes. Then they injected MDP into the mice three times over three days and saw a rapid improvement in blood glucose by the third day. “It’s not that the injection itself is lowering blood glucose, but those three short duration injections set the program up to allow insulin to work better,” he says.

When the body senses MDP is present, it increases the amount of a protein in fat tissue, called IR4, which sends out signals that lower blood glucose. “We don’t fully understand how it signals the body to lower blood glucose,” he admits. “We do know it reduces inflammation.”

While that may not sound dramatic, he says they were quite surprised, given that the typical immune response is to increase inflammation. “The postbiotic actually reduced inflammation in fat tissue, which are the tissues that control blood glucose,” he says.

While the results are exciting, he’s quick to point out that “we’re interested in discovery. We’ll leave the clinical aspect to clinicians.” They’d like to achieve a version of MDP that could be taken orally and not injected, but more research will be required. Plus, postbiotics can be a finicky area of research. He describes testing a different postbiotic that's a “a close cousin" to MDP, being "a different type of cell wall that was different by only one peptide.” But that postbiotic made glucose tolerance and inflammation much worse.

However, they also tested what’s called an “orphan drug”—approved only for clinical trials but not likely to make the drug company any money—called mifamurtide, typically used in treating bone cancers. Mifamurtide is synthetic, but chemically identical to the MDP postbiotic. It, too, improved blood glucose and insulin tolerance when administered to mice. The promising part about it is that since the drug is already given to humans in clinical trials, “it could make the transition to humans far more rapid,” he says.

One of their next steps is to expand the models they’re using, starting with age-induced diabetes. “Obesity is only one factor that promotes diabetes,” he says.

The most pressing question now, he says, is “to understand what is actually happening in the gut during obesity.” This compound promises a future in which obesity would pose less of a risk factor for diabetes. And postbiotics hold a lot of potential for future research.

“Postbiotics are a new source of drugs. Bacteria have different physiology from us, and can make all kinds of things that we can’t make,” Schertzer says.

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Geological Map Shows the Massive Reservoir Bubbling Beneath Old Faithful
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Yellowstone National Park is home to rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs, but Old Faithful is easily its most iconic landmark. Every 45 to 125 minutes, visitors gather around the geyser to watch it shoot streams of water reaching up to 100 feet in the air. The punctual show is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, but new research from scientists at the University of Utah suggests that what’s going on at the geyser’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, features a map of the geological plumbing system beneath Old Faithful. Geologists have long known that the eruptions are caused by water heated by volcanic rocks beneath the ground reaching the boiling point and bubbling upwards through cracks in the earth. But the place where this water simmers between appearances has remained mysterious to scientists until now.

Using 133 seismometers scattered around Old Faithful and the surrounding area, the researchers were able to record the tiny tremors caused by pressure build-up in the hydrothermal reservoir. Two weeks of gathering data helped them determine just how large the well is. The team found that the web of cracks and fissures beneath Old Faithful is roughly 650 feet in diameter and capable of holding more than 79 million gallons of water. When the geyser erupts, it releases just 8000 gallons. You can get an idea of how the reservoir fits into the surrounding geology from the diagram below.

Geological map of geyser.
Sin-Mei Wu, University of Utah

After making the surprising discovery, the study authors plan to return to the area when park roads close for the winter to conduct further research. Next time, they hope to get even more detailed images of the volatile geology beneath this popular part of Yellowstone.

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Animals
Why Do Female Spotted Hyenas Give Birth Through Their Pseudo-Penises?
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At the zoo, you can sometimes tell the difference between male and female animals by noting their physical size, their behavior, and yes, their nether regions. Hyenas, however, flip the script: Not only are lady spotted hyenas bigger and meaner than their male counterparts, ruling the pack with an iron paw, they also sport what appear to be penises—shaft, scrotum, and all.

"Appear" is the key word here: These 7-inch-long phalluses don't produce sperm, so they're technically really long clitorises in disguise. But why do female hyenas have them? And do they actually have to (gulp) give birth through them? Wouldn't that hurt … a lot?

The short answers to these questions are, respectively, "We don't know," "Yes," and "OW." Longer answers can be found in this MinuteEarth video, which provides the full lowdown on hyena sex. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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