Bill Gates says a diet ‘breakthrough’ based on the microbes crawling in your gut could help the world’s waistlines

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Bill Gates

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is investing millions of dollars in new strategies to create consumable gut-microbe therapies that could change the way our stomachs process food.
  • The hope is that new probiotics (which would be far more complex and microbe-rich than yogurt or fermented food) will help both undernourished and obese children live healthier lives.
  • Gates has been investing in this kind of microbial bio-therapy for about 10 years, and predicts "we will get a breakthrough" in nutrition in the coming decade.

Bill Gates readily admits: he’s always been "kind of a weirdo." That’s what got the Microsoft co-founder into computers in the first place, he says.

But these days, Gates’ odd streak is perhaps most apparent when it comes to his fascination with the human gut.

In November, Gates brought a jar of poop on stage with him at an event in Beijing, just to demonstrate that there could be trillions of virus particles, bacteria, and parasitic worm eggs inside.

Read More: Bill Gates is so obsessed with redesigning the world’s toilets, he brought a jar of poop onstage in Beijing to prove it

Gates’ interest in digestion goes beyond the disgusting and debilitating kinds of bacteria in our systems. The billionaire investor recently said that he believes we can re-vamp the inner workings of our guts by seeding the microbial colonies that live inside us.

"One thing that people are not expecting a breakthrough in that I’m quite optimistic we will get a breakthrough in is understanding nutrition," Gates said during a conversation last week at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He thinks hacking the microbiome is the way to do it. 

Gates Letter 2019

A robust, diverse microbiome sets us up for healthy development 

Good nutrition is a growing problem in countries both rich and poor.

While 22.2% of kids under 5 worldwide are stunted — meaning they aren’t growing and developing in a healthy way because of poor nutrition and infections — another 38 million children under 5 around the globe (5.6% of all kids) are overweight.

Part of the reason kids are not developing as they should is that their microbiomes aren’t robust. A person’s microbiome is the complex mix of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live inside the gut; it’s more than 2 million genes strong — more numerous than the human genome.

Starting at birth, when a baby’s sterile intestine is first exposed to a mother’s microbes, 300 to 500 different bacterial species begin to colonize this environment. Normally, this colonization is helped along by a mother’s nutrient-rich breast milk, as well as all the other things babies happen to put in their mouths.

But if a baby’s microbiome doesn’t develop properly, it can have serious long-term consequences for the way they process food, leading to stunted growth on one end of the spectrum or to obesity on the other. After babies are about a year old, their microbial colonies stabilize, which means the first months of life are the essential time to develop a rich microbiome.  

madagascar stunting malnutrition

Our microbiome determines how much nutrition we can get from the food we eat

Take the case of Madagascar, where stunting (low height for a kid’s age) is a problem for 53% of the country’s children under 5. Because kids there are not getting enough of key nutrients like iron, Vitamin A, zinc, and iodine  — which are critical to healthy development — they can’t grow up to achieve their full potential.

"They don’t develop physically, they don’t develop mentally," Gates said.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, scientists have discovered that severely malnourished babies tend to have more "immature" microbiomes than other infants, suggesting that the first months of life are critical to how well nourished we can be throughout our lives. 

"Even if they’re getting enough food, there’s something about inflammation in their gut that their body isn’t able to grow properly," Gates said. 

That has long-term impacts on the economy. The World Bank estimates that Madagascar misses out on $720 million in GDP every year because of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. 

On the other end of the spectrum, rich nations like Germany, Australia, and the US are missing out on billions because of poor nutrition as well. One study looked at the impacts of obesity in three US states — California, North Carolina, and Massachusetts — and estimated that those economies lose a total of $41 billion a year in indirect obesity costs like sick time, early death, and insurance payouts. 

nutrition malnutrition

A microbiome treatment could help guts grow up strong

Gates thinks one day, a probiotic powder, food, or other kind of microbial therapy could address these nutritional problems by introducing some missing bacteria into our guts. 

"We’re actually trying to intervene with that, so that [children’s] guts aren’t complaining, so they’re able to grow," Gates said.  

The Gates Foundation is hoping that scientists can soon come up with a cheap microbiome treatment that’s far more complex than just eating a yogurt. New probiotic therapies would include “a substantially larger number of difficult-to-grow commensal strains” of bacteria, the Gates Foundation said in its latest call for gut-therapy research.

Teams that receive phase-one funding for these projects will get $100,000 from the Gates Foundation. If they’re successful with that, researchers could get a second round of up to $1 million in cash to develop their new gut therapies. 

Already, the Gates Foundation has invested in a probiotic powder for babies called Evivo. Mothers mix the powder into breast milk to help babies repair and improve their gut microbiome. In theory, that could help malnourished babies boost their metabolism and develop a more robust immune system.

Trials of Evivo in severely malnourished kids under 6 months of age started in Bangladesh last year. Another Gates-funded project at the Washington University School of Medicine is feeding special "microbiota-directed foods" to undernourished kids in Bangladesh, too. 

Ideally, the Gates Foundation says, these fixes will one day be sold around the world for less than 10 cents per dose. 

That could create long-term diet solutions, both in poor places where the Gates Foundation works and in rich countries facing obesity epidemics. Gut bacteria play a role in obesity, too, since they send signals to the brain to tell us when we’re full

"Why is it that it’s not easy to have some sort of broader approach that lets us control our appetite?" Gates said. "The microbiome looks like it will give us a solution there."

Nutritionists are increasingly recognizing that there are no hard-and-fast rules that apply to everyone when it comes to diet, since each person’s body (and microbiome) is different.

"We now know there is no diet or dietary intervention that is right for everyone, or even for an individual throughout their lifespan," a group of researchers wrote in a Lancet article published in January.

But Gates is convinced that if we can keep the microbes in our guts humming along happily, that’ll be a good start. 

"Nutrition has always been a great mystery," Gates said. "A lot of myths — ‘try this, try that.’ But in this decade, I think that we can solve that."

SEE ALSO: Bill and Melinda Gates say the best way to put ‘America first’ is to invest in foreign aid — a not-so-subtle nudge at Trump

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Scientists just mapped the great white shark’s genome, revealing clues that may help us heal wounds and fight cancer

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great white shark

  • Scientists have successfully sequenced the entire genome of the great white shark.
  • Sharks have swum in the planet’s oceans for the last 400 million years. Some experts believe their species-wide longevity stems from a resistance to diseases like cancer and ability to heal quickly.
  • By decoding the shark’s genome, scientists hope to glean new insight into the mechanisms behind these healing powers.
  • There’s even a possibility that the findings could help humans tackle disease in new ways.

Damage-resistant genes. Healing powers. Very low risk of cancer. No, scientists aren’t describing Wolverine or Superman  — those are the powers of the great white shark. 

The star of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, whose scientific name is Carcharodon carcharias, has a reputation as a meat-eating monster of the sea. But in fact, great white sharks may offer clues about the genetic underpinnings of self-repairing DNA.

For the first time, scientists have successfully sequenced the entire genome of the great white shark. A genome is all of an organism’s genetic material — its genes and DNA. These sharks have 4.63 billion rungs on their DNA ladder, and 41 pairs of chromosomes compared to humans’ 23, a new study revealed.

So this sequencing effort was years in the making. 

But scientists think the work will be worth it, as Mahmood Shivji, a biologist at Nova Southeastern University and a co-author of the new study about the shark genome, told Business Insider.

"Sharks are well known to be able to heal from wounds efficiently, but nobody knows why," he said.

This new genome could reveal a plethora of genetic secrets that could explain why these animals are so good at healing and fending off disease.

"There’s a tremendous amount to be learned from these highly successfully evolutionary marvels," Shivji said. "Their function and design is 400 million years of extremely fine-tuned evolution."

Great white sharks are quick healers

Great whites and other sharks appear to be able to recover from severe wounds — injuries that could come from risky courtship behaviors, fights with other sharks, or harpoon hunting — in just weeks. 

Shivji and his co-authors found that the great white has more genes devoted to blood clotting, along with various proteins that help kick-start new skin and tissue, than any other mammal, fish, or bird. 

“They’ve devoted a significant proportion of their genome to wound healing,” Michael Stanhope, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University who co-led the study with Shivji, told Wired

Great White shark from Great White triangle

In addition to this rapid healing, sharks don’t get cancer more often than humans, despite their large size. Scientists generally think the chance of developing cancer should go up with an organism’s body size and life span, since having more cells and a longer life leads to more opportunities for cancer-causing DNA damage to accumulate.

But "it is rare to find a ‘sick’ shark in the wild," scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory wrote in a 2018 study.

Great whites can be up to 20 feet long, weigh some 7,000 pounds, and live between 40 and 70 years, so the fact that they don’t have an increased risk of cancer suggests that something in their genome confers additional protection. (Sharks’ typical causes of death involve interactions with humans or simply old age.)

One reason for that, according to the new study, may be that the great white’s genetic code hides a balance of DNA opposites that make the overall genome stable.

On one hand, the genome has a large proportion of "jumping genes": genes that make copies of themselves then insert themselves into various parts of the genome. Shivji said scientists would expect these genes to make the genome more unstable because they break up DNA strands upon insertion, which raises the risk of errors and damage in the genetic code.

Such genomic instability is associated with higher risk of cancers in humans, as well as other age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s.

But it turns out that the shark genome balances these jumping genes with stabilizing genes involved in DNA repair, damage response, and damage tolerance.

genome sequencing

So it appears that great white sharks have developed a way to keep their genomes stable despite their large bodies and long lifespans, Shivji said.

Sharks’ genetic ‘superpowers’ could have applications for human health

While the idea that sharks are cancer-proof continues to circulate, the animals can get the disease. There have been 44 reported instances of cancerous lesions among 21 different types of chondrichthyes, a species class that contains sharks and sting rays. Of those 44 reports, about a third were malignant, according to a 2016 study.

That cancer myth is the basis for shark-cartilage pills, the sale of which continues to decimate shark populations worldwide. Great whites are now listed as "vulnerable to extinction" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Shivji emphasized that eating shark products — like taking the cartilage pills or consuming shark fin soup — won’t improve your own genes’ abilities to resist cancer.

"We want to avoid giving the impression to people that if you eat sharks, it’ll cure diseases," Shivji said. "That’s as silly as saying, ‘if you eat sharks you’ll be able to hold your breath better.’"

But he added that the shark genome could give scientists "information that could be useful for human biomedical applications," including ways to "fight cancer and age-related diseases, and improve wound healing treatments."

Any treatments developed based on these findings are still far off, though — Stanhope told Wired that "it will take years of work."

"Sharks have had over 400 million years to battle test their immune systems and develop this incredible capability," Shivji said. "We’ve only scratched the very surface of understanding how they do this."

SEE ALSO: Researchers come face-to-face with huge great white shark

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A lifesaver that purifies and distills seawater for you

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Conceptually one of the most clever things I’ve seen in a while, this is the Purifier Lifesaver, a lifesaving tube that can also purify seawater to make it drinkable.

The first rule of being stranded at sea is to never consume seawater. Given seawater’s high saline content, your kidneys actually end up dehyrating your body in an effort to get rid of the salt you consume, so having freshwater is perhaps the biggest key to surviving out in the sea. The Purifier Lifesaver actually builds a purification mechanism into the buoyancy device, allowing you to fill the tube with seawater (only to a certain degree, because you still want to float), while a straw lets you sip the seawater that gets pulled through a purification unit as you suck on the straw. Keeping you from dying of thirst/dehydration, the Purifier Lifesaver can help be the difference between surviving an ocean calamity and succumbing to it.

The Purifier Lifesaver is a winner of the Red Dot Design Concept Award for the year 2018.

Designers: He Yue, Wang Dading & Yuan Huaiyu.

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