By Jane Benson, NSRDEC Public AffairsJuly 31, 2014
NATICK, Mass. (July 31, 2014) -- It takes guts to research Soldier nutrition and performance--or, more specifically, it takes gut bacteria.
Researchers at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, are investigating gut bacteria and its effects on Soldier performance. Natick's research is in the early stages but could eventually be used to improve rations to help Soldiers combat the effects of stress and to improve their overall performance.
"What's really created this wave of interest (in gut bacteria) is the Human Microbiome Project," said Ken Racicot, a food technologist/nutritional biochemist in NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate. "What came out of that is not only a lot of great research but also the tools--the tools to study in this area. There is a huge wave of interest, partly because the tools are now allowing us to study it better."
The Human Microbiome Project is a U.S. National Institutes of Health initiative. The goal of the project is to identify and characterize microorganisms, or bacteria, that reside in the human body in order to gain insights into human health and well-being. In terms of actual numbers, there are approximately 10 times the number of bacterial cells in the body as human cells, but the bacterial cells are much smaller than the human cells.
The gut microbiome, specifically, refers to the gut microbe system. Gut bacteria has an impact on the immune system and is also believed to play a role in obesity and several diseases, including diabetes. It may also affect cognitive and physical abilities. The type of gut bacteria a person has is determined at a very early age, but researchers believe that it may also be influenced and altered somewhat by diet or physical and emotional stress.
"We're at the early stages of this work," said Racicot. "We're doing basic research, and we're establishing in-vitro models to evaluate the influence of dietary input on the gut microbiome and how that can influence biological function--specifically, local inflammation and immune function. Our long-reaching goal, ultimately, is to be able to gain insight into dietary inputs that improve all of those functions and to develop combat rations in a way that can lead to those improvements."
Racicot is working with Steve Arcidiacono, a microbiologist, and Jason Soares, a research chemical engineer. Both Arcidiacono and Soares work for NSRDEC's Warfighter Directorate. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, is also an important collaborator in the research.
"Soldiers are facing physiological, psychological, cognitive and physical stress," Soares said. "Anytime you are carrying a load, you are creating physical stress. Physical stress and mood have been linked to changes in gut microbiome. These studies are being done in the civilian sector, but there isn't really a lot of work being done for Soldiers, and that's where our work comes in. We think we have a great opportunity to tailor some of this work specifically toward the Soldier, because the Soldier is subject to a lot of different stresses than you and I are."
Racicot's focus is on the nutritional aspect of the work in terms of optimization of Soldier performance through diet and immune function.
Soares and Arcidiacono are focusing on the bio-fermentation aspect--essentially trying to mimic the action of the human colon.
"Steve and I are trying to create a model of the human gut where we can also look at other aspects that are connected to nutrition, but more in terms of human performance," said Soares. "So, external stresses specific to a Soldier, such as sleep deprivation. Or certain cognitive stresses that a Soldier will get that no one else will get. Those external stresses have been linked to changes in the gut microbiome. So what we're interested in is trying to develop a model where we can see some of those changes. Then we work with Ken and the Combat Feeding Directorate and see if through dietary intervention, if we can overcome that external stressor to reinstate the Soldier's original level of performance under that particular stress condition."
"Ultimately, the goal is to improve performance in multiple areas where performance can hopefully be improved by dietary additives," Arcidiacono said. "Perhaps, it will help Soldiers overcome stress or fatigue from load carriage or no sleep--those kind of things."
"So we're putting the bacteria in (the reactor), and working with Ken, we are also putting in the dietary inputs and seeing how that bacteria breaks down that dietary input," said Soares. "The samples then go to Ken and he analyzes them in the human cell lab. He can look at the immune function of that dietary input. And we can look at how the population changes because of that the dietary input. For instance, does the dietary input increase beneficial microbes or change the balance of the gut bacteria?"
"It's a good opportunity for us to really make an impact here," Arcidiacono said. "It's been great working with Combat Feeding, because they operate with that path to the Soldier, with transitions is mind."
Racicot initiated the collaboration with Soares and Arcidiacono. The three researchers share a special chemistry, a great enthusiasm for pointing out one another's unintentional puns, and an even greater enthusiasm for their work.
"Bacteria is my life," said Arcidiacono.
"Working in an emerging field is exciting," Racicot said, "It is fulfilling to be part of this early wave."
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.