Need horse racing tips? The horse’s own gut may reveal who has the winning edge

PARIS, France — When it’s time to bet the big race, everyone has their own formula for picking a winner. Whether you play the odds or choose a horse by their name, there are no sure bets, or are there? A new study finds the gut may be able to reveal athletic performance, but not your gut, the horse’s gut! Researchers in France say a horse’s gut microbiome communicates with the animal’s cells, which can actually improve energy output.

A team from the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment believes this paves the way for new animal dietary supplements. For race horses, it would mean better gut health and better ability on the track.

“We are one of the first to demonstrate that certain types of equine gut bacteria produce chemical signals that communicate with the mitochondria in the horse’s cells that regulate and generate energy,” says study author Eric Barrey in a media release. “We believe that metabolites – small molecules created by breaking down bigger molecules for food or growth – produced by these bacteria have the effect of delaying low blood sugar and inflammation in the cells, which in turn extends the horse’s athletic performance.”

Gut bacteria and the link to disease

Researchers find the mitochondria in cells have a strong interdependence with an animal’s (or person’s) gut bacteria. The mitochondria are the energy-providing structures within each of the body’s cells.

While a good connection between the two can promote more energy, changes in gut health can lead to disease. Study authors say changes in the human microbiome can result in diseases causing mitochondrial dysfunction, like Parkinson’s and Crohn’s.

“Studying horses is a good way to assess the link between gut bacteria and mitochondria, because the level of exercise, and thereby mitochondrial function, performed by a horse during an endurance race is similar to that of a human marathon runner,” explains first author Dr. Nuria Mach.

Is better gut health hiding in your genes?

Researchers examined blood samples from 20 healthy horses of similar ages and performance levels. The team took the samples before and after the International Endurance Competition of Fontainebleau, an eight-hour horse race in France.

“These samples provided information about the chemical signals and expression of specific genes, which is the process by which DNA is converted into instructions for making proteins or other molecules,” Dr. Mach says.

To get a picture of each horse’s gut bacteria metabolites, researchers also collected fecal samples before the race’s start. The results reveal certain bacteria display a connection to the expression of genes by the cell mitochondria. The “turned on” genes also had a link to cell functions which help them adapt to energetic metabolism.

“Interestingly, mitochondria have a bacterial origin – it is thought they formed a symbiotic relationship with other components to form the first cell. This may explain why mitochondria have this line of communication with gut bacteria,” Barrey explains.

Study authors believe better understanding gut microbiome communication will lead to increased equine performance in the future. Knowing how bacteria improves cell function may also lead to better dietary and training techniques.

“Manipulating the gut microbiota with probiotic supplements as well as prebiotics, to feed the good bacteria, could be a way for increasing the health and balance of the microbiome and horses, to better sustain endurance exercise,” Mach concludes.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences.