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Probiotics - Published: February 2010
Interview Date: March 2010
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Glenn R. Gibson Glenn R. Gibson
From the Special Topic of Probiotics

In our Special Topics analysis of probiotics research over the past decade, the work of Professor Glenn Gibson ranks at #7 by total papers and #14 by total cites, based on 54 papers cited a total of 1,239 times. His record in Essential Science IndicatorsSM from Thomson Reuters includes 139 papers, the majority of which are classified under Microbiology or Agricultural Sciences, cited a total of 3,396 times between January 1, 1999 and October 31, 2009. He is also a Highly Cited Researcher in the field of Agricultural Sciences.

Professor Gibson is affiliated with the University of Reading, where he holds the titles of Professor of Food Microbiology and Head of Food Microbial Sciences. He is also the current President and a founder member of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP).

Below, talks with Professor Gibson about his highly cited research.


  Would you tell us a bit about your educational background and research experiences?

In 1986 I completed my Ph.D. in Scotland at the University of Dundee on the anaerobic bacteriology of marine and estuarine sediments. I was looking at the production of H2S by bacteria (sulphate-reducing bacteria). This is a noxious gas which was having an environmental impact. The bacteria responsible lodge in the sediments and produce the sulphides anaerobically from sulphate present in the seawater above.

From there I moved to the MRC Dunn Clinical Nutrition Centre in Cambridge to research human gut microbiology. In fact, this also looked at H2S production. Not only is this gas odiferous but it is very toxic. In the gut its accumulation can lead to inflammation. Working with John Cummings and George Macfarlane, we looked at the disease ulcerative colitis in this regard.

In 1995 I was appointed Head of the Microbiology Department, Institute of Food Research in Reading. In 1999 my research group transferred to the Department of Food Biosciences, University of Reading, to instigate a research unit in Food Microbial Sciences.

Colon Cancer

Colon cancer.

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I am currently Professor of Food Microbiology, the University of Reading and also head the Food Microbial Sciences Research Unit. I run a laboratory of (usually) 30-40 persons researching the development and validation of functional foods, especially prebiotics and probiotics, via a biomolecular approach to gut microbial ecology studies, including gut model systems and human trials. I currently research acute and chronic gut disease, and how diet can be used to reduce risk.

I suppose the highlight has been my involvement in the onset of the prebiotic concept. In 1995, I was the co-author of a research paper that first coined the term "prebiotic" as dietary modulation tool for the gut microbiota. This was with Marcel Roberfroid. The article has now been cited over 1,300 times in the literature. Since then, progress has been rapid whereby the prebiotic concept is now the subject of many international conferences, research articles, dietary products, and media attention. There are now over 1,500 peer-reviewed research papers on this subject.

  What first drew your interest to probiotics?

When we were researching ulcerative colitis, it became apparent that most of the gut flora was harmless and some species were positive for health. I then became interested in probiotics as live microbes to modulate composition and activity. On a research trip to Japan I became struck by how much research was going on there and the very interesting technologies that could be applied. From then most of my research became dominated by the "positive" gut flora.

  The majority of your highly cited papers in our analysis deal with the use of probiotics to modulate human gut microflora. In terms of highlights, what would you say are the major pros and cons of probiotics in this role?


  • given that the strains or products are really probiotics then the approach is harmless and can help a lot of people;

  • the field is popular and moving quickly

  • it allows a lot of new ideas to be put into practice

  • it allows new techniques to be applied (genomics, metabonomics, etc.)

  • research can lead to new products that actually can help people’s health


  • ensuring probiotic survival in products and after ingestion (hence my increased interest in prebiotics)

  • endless waste-of-time arguments over legislation and claims—generally this bores the pants off me but more worryingly is beginning to hamper the science and (wrongly) fuel consumer mistrust. Some people who don’t know what they are talking about are suddenly probiotic "experts"! I don't think that tough legislation is necessarily a bad thing, but unless this gets fairly sorted out and the vested interests dropped, then a lot of people’s access to robust health-promoting products will be compromised. There is a lot of mischief being made and this is doing no one any good.

  Several of your papers deal with probiotics and prebiotics. In general, how do these two functional food ingredients compare?

Probiotics are products containing live microorganisms. Prebiotics are not living microbes, but rather are specific foods for the gut microflora, i.e., they enter the gut after digestion and fortify only the beneficial flora therein. Prebiotics are not digested by humans because of their structure.

Most of my research now (and in the last few years) has been on prebiotics. There are a lot of things you can do to make prebiotics more functional and they are amenable to inclusion in more products than are probiotics.

"There are a lot of things you can do to make prebiotics more functional and they are amenable to inclusion in more products than are probiotics."

  Infant nutrition seems to be an important area for probiotics research. Why is this, and what have been some of the key findings in this population group?

The gut flora of breast-fed infants is dominated by populations of bifidobacteria (good probiotics) and this is believed to explain the purported healthier outlook of breast-fed infants compared to their formula-fed counterparts. One approach to fortify the microbiological role of formula feeds has been to use pro- or prebiotics as stimulants for bifidobacteria and thereby aim is to improve the gut microbiota composition (to better resemble that seen with breast feeding). Good trials have been published with health effects like improved resistance to infections and lesser incidence of eczema/asthma being reported.

  Where do you see probiotics going in the next decade?

What I hope is:

  • new probiotics and prebiotics that are reliable being developed

  • more interest in compositions that exploit both approaches (synbiotics)

  • how the gut flora impacts on overall metabolism of the host (and how this can be modulated by diet)

  • more human studies that use state-of-the-art techniques and are hypothesis-driven

  • confirmation on which products help which disorders—not only of the gut but also systemic effects

  • new research on autism and obesity delivering its potential

  • the mainstay use of probiotics and prebiotics to alleviate gut disorder and, with the fact that they can really help high-risk populations, an acceptance by those who can influence use (e.g., elderly, hospital patients, athletes, military, frequent travelers)

  • more interest from traditional research sponsors, the area is currently dominated by industry sponsorship, which is fine but sometimes does not allow testing of high-risk science

  • legislators, scientists, manufacturers, consumer bodies, and advertisers finally agreeing on what can be said and being constructive in this important area: at the moment there are too many egos and far too much verbiage!

Professor Glenn R. Gibson
University of Reading
Reading, England

Glenn R. Gibson's current most-cited paper in Essential Science Indicators, with 520 cites:

Suau A, et al., "Direct analysis of genes encoding 16S rRNA from complex communities reveals many novel molecular species within the human gut," Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 65(11): 4799-807, November 1999. Source: Essential Science Indicators from Clarivate Analytics.

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Special Topics : Probiotics : Glenn R. Gibson Interview - Special Topic of Probiotics