Methane is an end product of microbial fermentation in the human gastrointestinal tract. This gas is solely produced by an archaeal subpopulation of the human microbiome. Increased methane production has been associated with abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, IBD, CRC or other conditions. Twenty percent of the (healthy) Western populations innately exhale substantially higher amounts (>5 ppm) of this gas. The underlying principle for differential methane emission and its effect on human health was still not sufficiently understood.
We assessed the breath methane content, gastrointestinal microbiome, metagenome, metabolome, and eating behavior of one-hundred healthy young adults (female: n = 52, male: n = 48; mean age =24.1). On the basis of the amount of methane emitted, participants were grouped into high methane emitters (CH4 breath content 5-75 ppm) and low emitters (CH4 < 5 ppm).
The microbiomes of high methane emitters were characterized by a 1000-fold increase in Methanobrevibacter smithii. This archaeon co-occurred with a bacterial community specialized on dietary fibre degradation, which included members of Ruminococcaceae and Christensenellaceae. As confirmed by metagenomics and metabolomics, the biology of high methane producers was further characterized by increased formate and acetate levels in the gut. These metabolites were strongly correlated with dietary habits, such as vitamin, fat and fibre intake, host genetics, and microbiome function, altogether driving archaeal methanogenesis.
This study enlightens the complex, multi-level interplay of host diet, genetics and microbiome composition/function leading to two fundamentally different gastrointestinal phenotypes and identifies novel points of therapeutic action in methane-associated disorders.