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Almost 180 million children across the globe are stunted, a severe, disabling consequence of malnutrition and repeated childhood infections that puts them at risk for cognitive impairment and disease. New studies now point to another player in stunting: the gut microbiome. The right combination of microbes, it seems, can tip the balance between stunting and healthy growth, even when calories are scarce—a tantalizing, if preliminary, clue to possible interventions.
The three studies, reported in Science and Cell, “are a watershed moment in global health generally, and in nutrition specifically,” says William Petri, Jr., an infectious disease expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Petri was not involved in the current work, but he has spent years tracking the health of infants in Bangladesh. He and others have been long been frustrated by the inability of dietary supplements to reverse the negative effects of poor nutrition.
When Petri heard that gut bacteria might influence obesity, he reasoned that they might also influence a person’s response to hunger. So he and Tahmeed Ahmed from the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh teamed up with Jeffrey Gordon, a microbiologist at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri, to collect monthly fecal samples from healthy and malnourished Bangladeshi children under 2. Petri and Gordon found that as children matured, their community of gut bacteria normally shifted as well. But as they reported in 2014, stunted children didn’t have the appropriate bacterial community for their age, but an “immature” one more typical of a younger child.
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