Imagine having to lose 100 pounds or so, wishing you could have gastric bypass surgery, and then finding out that if a friend has the surgery you may be able to lose weight without going under the knife.

Well, that scenario has become a distinct possibility … for a few years down the road. The breakthrough comes from scientists at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. Working with laboratory mice they’ve found that gastric bypass surgery results—as expected—in dramatic weight loss in mice. But they also found that the surgery altered the community of microbes in the mice’s guts. And when the scientists extracted those microbes and inserted them into the guts of mice that didn’t have surgery, the receiving mice lost weight‑lots of it. In general, they lost about 20% as much weight as the mice who’d actually had the surgery.

This isn’t the first time that research has shown a significant change in gut microbes after gastric bypass surgery. But this new work is the first to show that changes in the bacterial community of the digestive tract can be “the gift that keeps on giving,” In this case the changes helped mice who had surgery as well as mice who hadn’t.

The researchers do caution that any human applications of their work may be years off. But Lee Kaplan, director of the Obesity, Metabolism and Nutrition Institute at Massachusetts General, and one of the study’s senior authors, suggests that already people who’ve struggled for years with obesity can find some comfort. Apparently, as many suspected, the problem lies not in just what you eat, but in how you digest.

+ + +

A. P. Liou, M. Paziuk, J.-M. Luevano, S. Machineni, P. J. Turnbaugh, L. M. Kaplan, Conserved Shifts in the Gut Microbiota Due to Gastric Bypass Reduce Host Weight and Adiposity. Sci. Transl. Med. 5, 178ra41 (2013).

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By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, contributing to Scientific AmericanDiscover, and Vermont Public Radio. She also presents a weekly radio spot, Family Friendly Science, on the nationally syndicated  show, Daybreak USA. By night she is a novelist and humorist. Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story is due out in May 2014 from She Writes Press. Nietzsche's Angel Food Cake: And Other "Recipes" for the Intellectually Famished was published in October 2013 by Beck & Branch.



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