Creative Minds: Broccoli, Microbes, & You

Cruciferous veggie headEat your broccoli! It’s a plea made every night at dinner tables across the country. And it’s a plea worth listening to, because broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables—such as kale, cabbage, and cauliflower—are a rich source of healthful nutrients [1].

But the reasons that these veggies are good for us turn out to be more complicated (and more interesting) than people thought in the past. Whether your body can take full advantage of the health benefits of these veggies may, in fact, depend on the microbes (bacteria) living in your gut.

Elizabeth Sattely, winner of a 2013 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award and a chemical engineering professor at Stanford University in California, is now busy learning more about how our bodies process the nutrients in the vegetables we consume. In particular, she wants to identify the species of microbes responsible for transforming each type of plant nutrient into beneficial health-promoting molecules, and then trace the chemical reactions involved.

Sattely’s primary area of study is the special molecules found in plants, including a group of sulfur-containing metabolites, known as glucosinolates, that give broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts their distinctive aroma and taste. But that’s just part of the story.  During digestion, glucosinolates are broken down and transformed by microbes into biologically active compounds, such as indoles, nitriles, thiocyanates, and isothiocyanates. These compounds, which can provide benefit by reducing inflammation, have been found to inhibit bladder, breast, colon, liver, lung, and stomach cancers in animal models. In addition, experiments with animals and cells grown in the lab have shown that these compounds protect DNA from damage, inactivate carcinogens, and trigger the death of sick cells.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.