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Gut microbes help to detoxify rat diets

By Tim Sandle     Jul 26, 2014 in Science
Gut microbes in Mojave Desert rats help the animals metabolize creosote toxins, according to some new research. The results demonstrated that gut microbes can enhance their rodent hosts’ ability to digest the creosote toxins.
Rats in the Mojave Desert chow down on the toxin-laced leaves of creosote bushes but suffer no ill effects. An analysis of the rodents’ gut microbes indicates that microbial genes help them digest the toxins. Creosote resin, which coats the surfaces of leaves, is mainly comprised of nordihydroguaiaretic acid, an aromatic compound that can cause liver damage and kidney cysts in most animals.
Microbiologists examined the gut microbes of creosote-consuming woodrats, and found a higher proportion of bacterial genes that help metabolize aromatic compounds in those animals, compared with their non-creosote-eating counterparts.
The creosote plant has been used in herbal medicine, but its use is controversial. It was widely used during the 1950s as a food preservative and to preserve natural fibers, but was later banned after reports of toxicity during the early 1960s. Recently, it has been used as a nutritional supplement, however renal toxicity and hepatotoxicity are reported for chronic use of creosote bush.
The microbes were the key factor was shown in a comparative study, The Scientist notes. Treating creosote-digesters with antibiotics reduced the microbial diversity in their foreguts by half. While the animals were able to eat nontoxic foods and maintain their body weight, they lost their ability to digest creosote. When the researchers transplanted gut microbes from creosote-eating rats to those that could not digest the toxins, the latter group gained the ability to metabolize creosote.
The research has been published in the journal Ecology Letters. The paper is called "Gut microbes of mammalian herbivores facilitate intake of plant toxins."
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