Germ free mice are quite interesting. I suppose that the first thing we can say about them is that they don’t have any bacterial fermentation in their gut to produce flatus. As a side issue of some interest is that none of their intestinal mucosal cells ever sees any acetate, butyrate or propionate derived from microbial fermentation of fibre in the gut. They seem rather happy that way. You could also say the same about their liver, it too never sees any SCFA bacterial fermentation products. They stay slim.
Ancient history tells us that germ free mice live rather longer than their more flatulent counterparts. I find this quite interesting.
Of course longevity is a relative term and perhaps ought to be qualified a little. We should actually say that they live longer than conventional mice, provided you feed them. Not feeding germ free mice is quite bad for them, they die under starvation significantly sooner than conventional mice do, at higher bodyweight and with more fat reserves.
That was the state of our knowledge at the end of the last century.
In more recent years the mechanisms for this failure to cope with starvation has become a little clearer. Germ free mice are insulin sensitive. They stay that way pretty much whatever you do to them in terms of diet. They stay that way even if you starve them. That, in terms of survival, is a booboo.
There are at least two techniques available via the gut microbiota which might improve the ability to survive starvation and which are gifted to germ free mice by smearing them with pooh from a conventional mouse. One is endotoxin, a subject I suspect I will come back to. The current one, for this post, is short chain fatty acids.
Bacterial fermentation of fibre produces those miracle agents of gut health and general goodness; acetate, butyrate and propionate. These act through a G protein coupled receptor on enterendocrine cells to promote fat storage. This is the Gpr41 receptor. Needless to say the enteroendocrine cells are the same cells which secrete FIAF, as in the FIAF series of posts. The two are possibly related. Given a little effort we could, by looking at conventionalisation of germ free mice, make a good guess about how much of a mouse’s fat belongs to the mouse and how much belongs to its gut microbiota.
So the fermentation products of bacteria promote fat storage when germ free mice are conventionalised. But no one seems to think that a lack of fat was the reason for germ free mice dying sooner under starvation. So what is the other effect of SCFAs, other than a bigger butt?
The gift of ketosis. Germ free mice are crap at ketosis. It’s not that they can’t do it, it seems to be more like a lack of practice. Acetate and butyrate are particularly ketogenic and hit all sorts of signalling systems in the liver to up regulate ketone generation in conventional mice. Of course germ free mice on standard crapinabag never send acetate to their liver, so their liver never up-regulates the correct PPARs to do ketosis. Putting germ free mice on to a deeply, deeply ketogenic diet teaches them how to make ketones and they become rather good at it.
Under starvation the myocardium of a germ free mouse continues to metabolise glucose, despite free fatty acids being available. Crawford et al consider the myocardium to be fairly representative of many of the glucose using organs in the body. They view ketones as an alternative energy source to glucose under starvation. While no one would argue with this, the possibility which fascinates me is that ketones are turning off glycolysis to spare glucose for the brain when fatty acids alone don’t do this. They appear to be a core component of physiological insulin resistance.
Whether these ketogenic germ free mice are able to extend their time of death to that of starved conventional mice is not a question which any modern ethics committee will allow you to answer today, unless you have a damned good reason. But I suspect the answer is yes.
Addendum. If you accept that perhaps SCFAs expand your butt via Gpr41 (we are not, after all, germ free mice freshly smeared with conventional mouse faeces) guess which metabolite is a direct antagonist to SCFAs at Gpr41? Clue, it's that the beta hydroxylated derivative of butyric acid. I love stuff that makes sense.