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Researchers investigate link between oral microbiota and obesity

In a study, researchers have looked at the oral microbiota of 2-year-olds to find out if it could be an indicator of weight gain later in life. (Photograph: BonNontawat/Shutterstock)

Tue. 23. October 2018


PENNSYLVANIA, U.S.: Child obesity throughout the Western world is becoming more of a common problem. In a new study that may help our comprehension of the issue, scientists from Pennsylvania State University set out to understand how the oral microbiota of 2-year-old children could be an indicator of weight gain later in life. The study is part of a larger study that is testing whether a responsive parenting intervention during a child’s early life can prevent the development of obesity.

“One in three children in the United States is overweight or obese,” said senior author of the paper Dr. Kateryna Makova, Pentz Professor of Biology at Penn State. “If we can find early indicators of obesity in young children, we can help parents and physicians take preventive measures.”

Although variations in gut microbiota had been linked to obesity in some adults and adolescents, the potential relationship between oral microbiota and weight gain in children had not been explored prior to this study. “The oral microbiota is usually studied in relation to periodontal disease, and periodontal disease has in some cases been linked to obesity,” said first author of the paper Dr. Sarah Craig, a postdoctoral scholar in biology at Penn State. “Here, we explored any potential direct associations between the oral microbiota and child weight gain. Rather than simply noting whether a child was overweight at the age of two, we used growth curves from their first two years after birth, which provides a more complete picture of how the child is growing. This approach is highly innovative for a study of this kind, and gives greater statistical power to detect relationships,” she continued.

In the study, researchers assessed 226 children from central Pennsylvania. According to the results, the oral microbiota of those with rapid infant weight gain—a strong risk factor for childhood obesity—was less diverse, containing fewer groups of bacteria. These children also had a higher ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes, two of the most common bacterial groups found in the human microbiota.

Lower diversity and a higher Firmicutes-to-Bacteroidetes ratio in gut microbiota are sometimes observed as a characteristic of adults and adolescents with obesity. However, the researchers did not see a relationship to weight gain for either of these measures in gut microbiota of 2-year-olds, suggesting that the gut microbiota may not be completely established at 2 years of age and may still be undergoing many changes.

Another interesting aspect of the study for researchers was that weight gain in children was related to diversity of their mothers’ oral microbiota. This could reflect a genetic predisposition of the mother and child to having a similar microbiota, or the mother and child having a similar diet and environment.

“It could be a simple explanation like a shared diet or genetics, but it might also be related to obesity,” said Makova. “We don’t know for sure yet, but if there is an oral microbiome signature linked to the dynamics of weight gain in early childhood, there is a particular urgency to understand it. Now we are using additional techniques to look at specific species of bacteria, rather than larger taxonomic groups of bacteria, in both the mothers and children to see whether specific bacteria species influence weight gain and the risk of obesity.”

The study, titled “Child weight gain trajectories linked to oral microbiota composition,” was published in Scientific Reports on Sept. 19, 2018.

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