Probiotics - Published: February 2010
Interview Date: March 2010
Glenn R. Gibson
From the Special Topic of
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
Essential Science IndicatorsSM from
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
Below, ScienceWatch.com 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.
View/download accompanying seven slides and
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
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,
research can lead to new products that actually can help
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
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
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
What I hope is:
new probiotics and prebiotics that are reliable being developed
more interest in compositions that exploit both approaches
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
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
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
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.
Essential Science Indicators from
Glenn R. Gibson is featured in
KEYWORDS: PROBIOTICS, PREBIOTICS, HUMAN GUT, H2S, ULCERATIVE COLITIS,
FUNCTIONAL FOODS, GUT MICROBIAL ECOLOGY, GUT DISEASE, GUT FLORA,
LEGISLATION, INFANT NUTRITION, FORMULA FEEDS, BIFIDOBACTERIA, HEALTH