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cancer colorrectal. © ag visuell - Fotolia

The gut microbiota: a crucial actor in regulating iron levels in our bodies

Do the bacteria in our gut act on the metabolism of iron, an element that is essential to our good health? For the first time, teams from INRA and INSERM, working in collaboration with the CNRS, have shown how bacteria modify the distribution and storage of iron in intestinal cells.  The microbiota can now be considered as a new pathophysiological regulator of intestinal iron absorption.  This work was published online in The Faseb Journal on 15 September 2015.

Updated on 06/30/2017
Published on 09/15/2015

Iron is an element that is vital to the life of organisms.  Its regulation and satisfactory control in the body can ensure good health.  An iron deficiency is harmful, but its overload also involves risks to health.  Numerous questions are currently being raised by society, notably concerning the efficacy of supplementing the human diet with iron, and whether this is necessary.

In the gut, bacteria (which make up the microbiota) and intestinal cells live in symbiosis, and each need iron to survive.  The only portal of entry into the body for dietary iron is the gut.  When an organism needs iron, its absorption is favoured by the intestinal cells, and when requirements decrease, these cells also reduce their absorptive capacity.  These finely regulated mechanisms also respond to a hormone, hepcidin, which was discovered a few years ago by an INSERM team.

Scientists from INRA and INSERM, working collaboration with the CNRS, focused on how the microbiota affects intestinal iron absorption, independently of hormonal effects. To achieve this, they compared animals (rodents) devoid of a gut microbiota (so-called "axenic" animals) with those whose microbiota was controlled.  In the absence of a microbiota, the intestinal cells displayed very low iron stocks, and transport systems towards the body were very scarce.  On the other hand, as soon as the microbiota was present in the gut, these cells acquired a considerable capacity for iron storage (in the form of ferritin), and favoured its transport towards the body (increase in ferroportin). Thus in the presence of gut bacteria, the intestinal cells adapted their ability to distribute and store iron.

Demonstration of this new pathway for the control of iron metabolism will enable the improved adaptation of iron intakes and should permit a clearer understanding of iron abnormalities in the context of diseases that involve an imbalance of the microbiota, referred to as "dysbioses".

Scientific contact(s):

  • Muriel Thomas (33 (0)1 34 65 28 35) INRA-AgroParisTech Joint Research Unit for Food and Gut Microbiology for Human Health (Institut Micalis)
  • Gaël Nicolas (33 (0)1 57 27 73 39) Centre for Research on Inflammation (INSERM-CNRS-Université Paris Diderot 7)
  • Sophie Vaulont (33 (0)1 44 41 24 47 ) Institut Cochin (INSERM-CNRS-Université Paris Descartes)
Press Relations:
INRA News Office (33 (0)1 42 75 91 86)
Associated Division(s):
Nutrition, Chemical Food Safety and Consumer Behaviour
Associated Centre(s):


Jean-Christophe Deschemin, Marie-Louise Noordine, Aude Remot, Alexandra Willemetz, Clément Afif, François Canonne-Hergaux, Philippe Langella, Zoubida Karim, Sophie Vaulont, Muriel Thomas, Gaël Nicolas. The microbiota shifts the iron sensing of intestinal cells. January 2016 print issue of The FASEB Journal.
DOI: 10.1096/fj.15-276840