What can poop from ancient Neanderthals tell us?
It turns out that it harbors valuable information about modern-day gut health.
An international research group led by the University of Bologna in Italy analyzed ancient DNA samples extracted from 50,000-year-old sedimentary feces, the oldest sample of fecal material available. They collected the matter in El Salt (Spain), a site where many Neanderthals lived.
The investigators found that Neanderthals' gut microbiota contained some beneficial microorganisms that are also in modern humans' intestines.
The research suggests that there are ancestral components of human microbiota that have been living in the gastrointestinal tract for a very long time -- at least as long as 700,000 years ago -- when the separation of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals happened.
In their analysis, the researchers found many similarities in ancient and modern microbiota. A new scientific field known as paleomicrobiology enabled this research. This field studies ancient microorganisms from archaeological remains through DNA sequencing.
"These results allow us to understand which components of the human gut microbiota are essential for our health, as they are integral elements of our biology also from an evolutionary point of view," explained study coordinator Marco Candela. He is a professor in the department of pharmacy and biotechnology at the University of Bologna.
"Nowadays there is a progressive reduction of our microbiota diversity due to the context of our modern life: This research group's findings could guide us in devising diet- and lifestyle-tailored solutions to counteract this phenomenon," Candela said in a university news release.
Gut microbiota is the collection of trillions of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract that regulate your metabolism and immune system, and protect you from pathogenic microorganisms.
Recent studies have shown that eating processed food, drug use and living in hyper-sanitized environments can lead to a critical reduction in micro-biodiversity of gut microbiota, including losing microorganisms known as "old friends," the study authors noted.
According to study first author Simone Rampelli, a researcher at the University of Bologna, "The process of depletion of the gut microbiota in modern western urban populations could represent a significant wake-up call. This depletion process would become particularly alarming if it involved the loss of those microbiota components that are crucial to our physiology."
Alarming signs of this include increases in chronic inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.
Candela said, "In the current modernization scenario, in which there is a progressive reduction of microbiota diversity, this information could guide integrated diet- and lifestyle-tailored strategies to safeguard the microorganisms that are fundamental to our health. To this end, promoting lifestyles that are sustainable for our gut microbiota is of the utmost importance, as it will help maintain the configurations that are compatible with our biology."
The research was published online Feb. 5 in the journal Communication Biology.
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SOURCE: University of Bologna, news release, Feb. 5, 2021