published Friday, December 7th, 2012

Cook: The bless your heart bacteria

I suspect that when it's all said and done, they'll find a lot of cornbread crumbs and fried chicken.

Having already explored Mars and mapped the human genome, scientists are now venturing into new territories.

The mysterious American gut.

"The gut is the area that defines your health," said Dr. Jack Gilbert, a leading microbiologist behind the American Gut Project. "It's the link between your diet and what you get out of your diet."

Like the Vols secondary, your gut is the difference between heartburn and happiness.

Before reaching its final destination, all the food we eat must pass through our gut (it's like the Atlanta airport of the gastrointestinal world), where bacteria there identify, process and remove all the valuables (kind of like TSA agents!) from your food before sending it on its way.

The American Gut Project wants to catalog the guts of 10,000 Americans in order to learn how different diets and the trillions of microbes and bacteria within our midsection can affect our health, weight and lives.

"Obesity. Diabetes. Long-term health," listed Gilbert, a microbiologist and University of Chicago professor.

To pull this off, the American Gut Project ( needs volunteers (I think I'm going to do it). For $99, you mail in a skin, stool or oral sample and, within weeks, after being added to the gut library, receive a report detailing your own bacteria and how it compares to others in the study.

The Chardonnay-sushi-smoothie-diet of an Orange County housewife. Folks in Chicago who eat pizza slices as big as a Sunday paper. The beef on every Midwestern plate.

Like micro-climates, each type of diet can create different communities of bacteria within the gut. If he's worth his grits, Gilbert will realize the Southerner's gut contains bacteria found nowhere else on the planet.

The Bless Your Heart bacteria.

A grandmother wiping white flour from her hands onto her apron. Sopping up pot liquor with the last bite of cornbread. The second slice of pecan pie. The third glass of buttermilk. The fourth pass of mashed potatoes around the table.

Within the gut of many Southerners are generations of bacteria born from lazy Sunday afternoon meals. Our region has a food tradition unlike any other. Tables covered in bowls of green beans, sweet potatoes, corn, deviled eggs and biscuits. Somewhere, a chitlin.

And it's not a meal until someone, at some point, says those four holy words.

Well, bless your heart.

The Tailgate bacteria.

Season after season of Saturday afternoons have produced legions of bacteria feeding off that lovely blend of $2 beer, barbecue sauce and anything fried.

Sure, other people in America tailgate. But not like here.

(A side bet: Researchers will discover that gut-bacteria in Vols fans are unique to all others. They tend to turnover a lot.)

"Bacteria are the engine of the gut," Gilbert said.

Know how some folks eat fattening foods and never gain an ounce? Others who grow pant sizes just by looking at food? Gilbert said gut-bacteria could play a role in this, and suggested the possibility of transplanting gut-bacteria from the former crowd into the latter.

"They would not be susceptible to obesity," he theorized.

Sweet Little Debbies! You're saying we could eat anything we want and never gain weight?

"You can't just transform someone's gut and hope you eat as much fried food as you want," he cautioned, adding that diet influences the body beyond the stomach.

"Eating a lot of fried chicken could influence your heart," he said.

He already sounds like a Southerner, doesn't he?

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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