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Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators have identified the mechanism by which an enzyme produced in the intestinal lining helps to maintain a healthy population of gastrointestinal microbes.

In their report in American Journal of Physiology — Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, the research team describes finding that intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP) promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria by blocking the growth-inhibiting action of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) .

“We found that ATP is a natural inhibitor of bacteria in our intestines and that IAP promotes the growth of ‘good’ bacteria by blocking ATP,” says Richard Hodin, MD, of the MGH Department of Surgery, senior author of the report which has been released online.

“By helping to keep these healthy bacteria happy, IAP protects us against dangerous pathogens that can get the upper hand when the balance is disrupted.”

The beneficial bacteria and other microbes that normally populate the human digestive system contribute to the digestive process and also prevent the proliferation of any disease-causing bacteria that may be present.

A drop in the number of beneficial species — which may be caused by antibiotic treatment, poor nutrition or other health conditions — can allow the population of harmful bacteria to rise, contributing to serious medical problems including chronic diarrhea from pathogenic species such as C. difficile, inflammatory bowel disease, and metabolic syndrome.

“Now we need to find out whether IAP also promotes the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria in humans,” says Hodin, who is a professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

“If it does, IAP-based therapies could offer a simple and safe approach to treating the millions of patients who suffer serious health problems caused by disruptions to intestinal microbial balance.”