"In the data sets we looked at, we found three types. Would it remain only three if you sampled 100,000 people? We don't know," Arumugam said. "It could also be that maybe these enterotypes could be refined more and that there are subtypes."
Since researchers began to understand that gut microbes play a significant -- and underestimated -- role in human health, one question that's been vexing the field is just how many versions of intestinal microbiota there are, said Justin Sonnenburg, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
If there were an infinite number of variations, then using the information in the real world would be impossibly complex, Sonnenburg added.
"There's been this increasing realization over the past several years that the microbes that live in and upon us are wired into many facets of our biology, and it's also becoming clear that these microbes are going to be a major determinant of variation between individuals, both in relationship to our health, predisposition to disease, progression of diseases and how they should be treated therapeutically," he said.
But by identifying the three types, the new research represents a significant breakthrough, he added.
"This paper really makes a huge leap in establishing that this variation is not a continual and infinite, but that there these finite enterotypes," Sonnenburg said.
Think of it like eye color, Sonnenberg added. There's brown, green, blue, hazel and a perhaps a few other variations, but there is no purple, chartreuse or other colors.
The researchers said they had found no evidence that such characteri
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