Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Right Enzymes

Echosquirrel and I have this running dispute on how long it takes to digest a meal. I've always tended to think that at most it takes a day, whereas she argues that the whole process from intake to elimination of wastes takes a few days. While doing a little basic research to find out that she is right — it takes 72 hours on average (the large intestine is not 9 meters long for nothing) — I also discovered that many Japanese people carry an enzyme in their gut not found in Westerners' for digesting seaweed.

According to a May, 2010 article by Karen Schwarzberg and Mike Gurney in the Microbe Blog Small Things Considered,
the Japanese can digest their nori (Porphyra) courtesy of the particular strains of B. plebeius that they carry, strains that are not found in North Americans. Furthermore, genomic evidence suggests that the initial acquisition of the β-porphyranase genes by B. plebeius was by horizontal transfer from a marine Bacteroidetes. The likely site for the transfer might well have been within the human GI tract since such Bacteroidetes are present on the uncooked seaweeds that have been avidly eaten by the Japanese since at least the eighth century. The transfer would have provided the host with a selective advantage: the ability to metabolize and derive energy from a frequently-eaten carbohydrate source that others in the population could not digest. Interestingly, the paper (Hehemann, Nature) reports an incident of transfer from mother to infant, implying that we can pass those modified bacteria to close family members and perhaps others.
I don't have any particular problems digesting nori or the various other seaweeds I ingest on an almost daily basis.
Here's hoping I have the right enzymes.

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