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Elite Athletes Have Exercise-Enhancing Gut Bacteria


A new study has discovered that the guts of elite athletes contain a particular type of bacteria that boosts exercise capacity. The bacteria are members of the genus Veillonella and are not present in the gut microbiomes of sedentary people.

The microbiome

The microbiome is an ever-changing ecosystem in the gut populated by a vast array of types of archaea, eukarya, viruses, and bacteria. Four microbial phyla, Firmicutes, Bacteroides, Proteobacteria, and Actinobacteria, make up 98% of the intestinal microbiome.

The microbiome is a complex ecosystem that regulates various aspects of gut function along with the immune system, the nutrient supply, and metabolism. It also helps to control the growth of pathogenic bacteria, protects from invasive microorganisms, and maintains the intestinal barrier.

As we age, the composition and diversity of the microbiome changes, as the beneficial bacteria populations tend to decline and the harmful bacteria often increase in numbers. These changes are thought to contribute to aging, and there is increasing evidence to suggest that the gut microbiome may be the origin point of inflammaging, the chronic background of inflammation typically present in older people.

Elite athletes’ exercise-boosting bacteria

Researchers at the Joslin Diabetes Center have published a new study that examined the microbiomes of elite athletes and determined that the Veillonella bacteria is able to metabolize lactic acid, which is produced during exercise, and convert it into the short-chain fatty acid propionate which our bodies can use to increase exercise endurance and which helps regulate metabolism [1].

Propionate is thought to be the most commonly produced of the short-chain fatty acids in the human gut microbiome in response to consuming fiber in the diet. What is interesting about this study is how this unusual bacteria is able to convert lactic acid rather than fiber into propionate. Therefore, having these additional populations of bacteria allows athletes to push harder and exercise for longer.

An increased exercise capacity is associated with general health and longevity while protecting against cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The researchers are hoping to develop a probiotic supplement for the general public, allowing people to seed their microbiomes with the same beneficial Veillonella bacteria in order to improve health and exercise capacity.

The human gut microbiome is linked to many states of human health and disease. The metabolic repertoire of the gut microbiome is vast, but the health implications of these bacterial pathways are poorly understood. In this study, we identify a link between members of the genus Veillonella and exercise performance. We observed an increase in Veillonella relative abundance in marathon runners postmarathon and isolated a strain of Veillonella atypica from stool samples. Inoculation of this strain into mice significantly increased exhaustive treadmill run time. Veillonella utilize lactate as their sole carbon source, which prompted us to perform a shotgun metagenomic analysis in a cohort of elite athletes, finding that every gene in a major pathway metabolizing lactate to propionate is at higher relative abundance postexercise. Using 13C3-labeled lactate in mice, we demonstrate that serum lactate crosses the epithelial barrier into the lumen of the gut. We also show that intrarectal instillation of propionate is sufficient to reproduce the increased treadmill run time performance observed with V. atypica gavage. Taken together, these studies reveal that V. atypica improves run time via its metabolic conversion of exercise-induced lactate into propionate, thereby identifying a natural, microbiome-encoded enzymatic process that enhances athletic performance.


The microbiome and its diversity is increasingly being implicated in health and aging, and if an efficient way to introduce beneficial bacteria to the guts of everyone can be developed, it has implications for the health and fitness of the overall population.

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[1] Scheiman, J., Luber, J. M., Chavkin, T. A., MacDonald, T., Tung, A., Pham, L. D., … & Yang, Z. (2019). Meta-omics analysis of elite athletes identifies a performance-enhancing microbe that functions via lactate metabolism. Nature Medicine, 1.

About the author

Steve Hill

Steve serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor in Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 600 articles on the topic, interviewed over 100 of the leading researchers in the field, hosted livestream events focused on aging, as well as attending various medical industry conferences. His work has been featured in H+ magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, Swiss Monthly, Keep me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve is one of three recipients of the 2020 H+ Innovator Award and shares this honour with Mirko Ranieri – Google AR and Dinorah Delfin – Immortalists Magazine. The H+ Innovator Award looks into our community and acknowledges ideas and projects that encourage social change, achieve scientific accomplishments, technological advances, philosophical and intellectual visions, author unique narratives, build fascinating artistic ventures, and develop products that bridge gaps and help us to achieve transhumanist goals. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project.
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