Gut microbiota is known to contribute to immune function and nutrient extraction. The mix of microbes in people's gut gets established early on in childhood and plays a large part in keeping kids healthy.

But starvation disrupts the development of a healthy microbiome, according to a new study that compared the gut microbiota of healthy and severely malnourished children in the first two years after birth.

The children were from a slum area in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This disruption persisted even after the malnutrition was treated with high-nutrient foods.

"The results suggest the mix of gut microbiota, which is known to contribute to immune function and nutrient extraction, could play a significant role in the pathology of malnutrition," explained Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University in St Louis.

To determine the composition of normal microbiota and how they develop, a team of researchers led by Gordon and took monthly faecal samples from 12 healthy children from the slum over the first two years of life.

When the researchers analysed the gut microbiota of starving children from the same part of Dhaka, however, they found that the microbial composition did not correspond to the children's actual age.

Instead, it was that expected in a younger child. The discrepancy was greatest in the most severely malnourished children. Moreover, although the microbiota temporarily 'matured' after feeding treatment had improved the children's weight and nutritional status, it soon returned to a 'young for age' status.  

The well-nourished children had a resilient microbiome. Although its composition changed, for example, during diarrhoeal infections, it returned to the normal state within a month or so.

The study has been published online in the journal Nature.


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