NATICK, Mass. (Feb. 19, 2016) -- Fermentation research by Jason Soares -- a chemical engineer at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center -- is at the heart, or rather the gut, of NSRDEC's early research to improve Soldier health and performance.

Early research is an important part of the mission of NSRDEC, laying the groundwork for discovery and innovation to improve Soldier protection and quality of life.

Soares, who works in NSRDEC's Warfighter Directorate, is investigating gut bacteria, focusing on the bio-fermentation aspect. NSRDEC chemical engineer Laurel Doherty is Soares' colleague and does a lot of the hands-on work. This early research in gut bacteria will eventually be used to improve rations to help Soldiers combat the effects of stress and to improve their overall performance.

"Fermentation gives you a tool to mimic what is happening in the gut in a lab setting," said Soares. "An actual colon has three domains. Our fermentation system can be set up so we can actually see and experiment under the conditions of all three domains of the colon.

"Part of our work was actually developing that model to use as a tool for our research. So we are not only studying fermentation, we are, at the laboratory level, developing the tools to make our fermentation more relevant. We are developing the methods to study the specific problem that we are trying to address."

Soares and his NSRDEC colleagues work closely with U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. USARIEM is studying the effects of switching to a diet of Meals, Ready-to-Eat, which Soldiers often eat in remote or combat situations. The findings will be shared with NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate to provide insights into ration improvements.

"We can factor in the unique stresses faced by the warfighter," said Soares. "We partner with USARIEM, and they provide us the samples that enable us to do our warfighter-centric research. The work we are doing is related to USARIEM's 21-day MRE study. So the stressor is a rapid change in diet. This mimics the training cycle that Soldiers go through."

The samples from the study will enable Soares to observe how the stress of dietary changes impacts gut bacteria.

"We will be able to understand what bacteria play a role in that stress state," said Soares. "Then we'll see if we can introduce foods that will help them overcome the stress of having to change their diets immediately. People do adjust to changes in diet over time, but during that recovery time, warfighters still have to perform their missions and multiple duties."

The rapid change in diet can cause gastrointestinal problems.

"Bacterial diarrhea, brought about by GI stress, is one of the top infectious diseases for warfighters," said Soares. "This type of illness can have a major effect on ability to carry out a mission due to the complications that arise from it. So, what we're doing at the lab level is gaining knowledge. Our outcome is going to be the knowledge that we will share with Combat Feeding, who can then make exploratory ration components that could potentially be used by USARIEM in a clinical trial."

Preliminary research and the development of a knowledge base are essential steps in the research and development process -- steps that make everything that comes after them possible.

"What Laurel and I are hoping to get out of our work is information that will form the basis for future research," said Soares. "It's a very important step in the process, but it is a step that isn't always visible. Yet this underlying science is really important for getting solutions to the Soldier."

Gut bacteria research is particularly relevant to the warfighter because what happens in a person's gut can affect overall physical and cognitive function.

"What happens in your gut can actually affect your brain," said Soares.

"It has been linked to depression, anxiety and memory," said Doherty.

"It affects your immune system and health," said Soares.

Soares hopes that in a few years, he and his NSRDEC colleagues will develop a fermentation tool to study the small intestine, as well.

"We will link the new tool to the large intestine/colon model," said Soares. "This tool could further our research into the impact of stress and diet on the warfighter."

Although gut bacteria research is being widely performed, NSRDEC's research is specific to the warfighter.

"What I really like about this work is to do my part in helping the warfighter by helping him or her to feel better, perform better, because what they do is amazing," said Soares. "The gut work is great because we have that kind of connection to the warfighter. I love that we can tie our work to a warfighter-centric problem and know that what we are doing in the long term can benefit the warfighter."

"I love the fact that this project is a direct path addressing a real and defined need," said Doherty. "We can see how this research will help Soldiers down the road."

"The knowledge always leads to something," said Soares. "The gut microbiome could be a huge part of our future health strategies."

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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 ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.