The gut microbiome, endocannabinoids and metabolic disorders

in Journal of Endocrinology
Authors:
Fabio Arturo IannottiInstitute of Biomolecular Chemistry, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Pozzuoli, Campania, Italy

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Vincenzo Di MarzoDirector, Joint International Research Unit for the Chemical and Biomolecular Study of the Microbiome in Metabolic Health and Nutrition (JIRU-MicroMeNu) between the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR, Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry) and Université Laval, Naples, Campania, Italy
Canada Excellence Research Chair on the Microbiome-Endocannabinoidome Axis in Metabolic Health (CERC-MEND), Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and School of Nutrition, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, CRIUCPQ, INAF and Centre NUTRISS, Université Laval, Québec City, Canada

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Correspondence should be addressed to V Di Marzo: vdimarzo@icb.cnr.it

This paper is part of a collection of articles exploring Gut Microbiome and Endocrinology, across the Journal of Endocrinology and the Journal of Molecular Endocrinology. The editor for this section was Dr Jonathon Schertzer.

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Two complex systems are emerging as being deeply involved in the control of energy metabolism. The intestinal microbiota, with its warehouse of genes, proteins and small molecules, that is, the gut microbiome; and the endocannabinoid system, with its recent extension to a more complex signalling apparatus including more than 100 lipid mediators and 50 proteins, that is, the endocannabinoidome. Both systems can become perturbed following bad dietary habits and during obesity, thus contributing to exacerbating this latter condition and its consequences in both peripheral organs and the brain. Here, we discuss some of the multifaceted aspects of the regulation and dysregulation of the gut microbiome and endocannabinoidome in energy metabolism and metabolic disorders, with special emphasis on the emerging functional interactions between the two systems. The potential exploitation of this new knowledge for the development of new pharmacological and nutritional approaches against obesity and its consequences is also briefly touched upon.

Abstract

Two complex systems are emerging as being deeply involved in the control of energy metabolism. The intestinal microbiota, with its warehouse of genes, proteins and small molecules, that is, the gut microbiome; and the endocannabinoid system, with its recent extension to a more complex signalling apparatus including more than 100 lipid mediators and 50 proteins, that is, the endocannabinoidome. Both systems can become perturbed following bad dietary habits and during obesity, thus contributing to exacerbating this latter condition and its consequences in both peripheral organs and the brain. Here, we discuss some of the multifaceted aspects of the regulation and dysregulation of the gut microbiome and endocannabinoidome in energy metabolism and metabolic disorders, with special emphasis on the emerging functional interactions between the two systems. The potential exploitation of this new knowledge for the development of new pharmacological and nutritional approaches against obesity and its consequences is also briefly touched upon.

The gut microbiota and microbiome and the control of metabolism

Research started several decades ago, but bloomed only since the beginning of the new century, has provided uncontroversial evidence that the complex ecosystem known as the gut microbiota, encompassing bacteria, archeobacteria, viruses and fungi living in the mammalian gastrointestinal system, plays a fundamental role in the control of the host energy metabolism (Evans et al. 2013, Cani 2019, Koh & Bäckhed 2020). Such function is exerted at the same time by: (1) metabolising macro and micronutrients that cannot be otherwise utilised by host cells as a source of energy, hence helping the host to adapt to new dietary challenges; and (2) producing signalling molecules that can influence all aspects of energy metabolism, including food intake, energy expenditure and lipid accumulation by the adipose tissues and liver, nutrient absorption by the gut, and glucose and lipid anabolism and catabolism (Canfora et al. 2019). Indeed, and quite intuitively, the several phyla of microorganisms, selected by genetics and lifelong environmental clues (including, but not limited to, lifestyle habits (Di Marzo & Silvestri 2019)) to live in specific compartments of the gut, can only play their symbiotic (or pathological) role through what has been recently defined as their ‘theatre of activity’ (Berg et al. 2020). This is the molecular warehouse, including gut microbial genes – which largely outnumber those of the host – nucleic acids, proteins (with structural, catalytic and signalling function) and small signalling molecules, best known as the ‘gut microbiome’ (Berg et al. 2020).

It was immediately clear that the gut microbiome helps host physiology determine the ideal control of nutrient processing necessary for metabolic health. This concept was supported in particular by laboratory experiments in which a ‘transplant’ of the faecal microbiome of obese individuals (human or mice) to healthy mice could transfer to the latter several features of the metabolic syndrome (Koren et al. 2012, Ellekilde et al. 2014). Conversely, in a clinical study, transfer of intestinal microbiota from lean donors increased insulin sensitivity in individuals with metabolic syndrome (Vrieze et al. 2012). As a consequence of these findings, for a decade research has focussed on understanding what would be the ideal relative amounts of the various microbial taxa composing the gut microbiota in order to achieve a healthy metabolic state. Indeed, both human and animal studies have shown that gut microbial composition, from the phyla to the genus level, in individuals with metabolic disorders such as obesity, hyperglycemia and dyslipidemia, and ensuing complications, such as type 2 diabetes (T2D), hepatosteatosis and atherosclerosis, differ from that of metabolically healthy subjects (Allin et al. 2018, Cani 2019, Zhong et al. 2020). However, the nature and extent of such differences may vary considerably depending on the human cohort investigated and several genetic, developmental, hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors (e.g. maternal diet during gestation and lactation, type of delivery, sex, age, diet, geographical location, circadian rhythms, underlying pathologies and use of drugs and medications, just to name a few). These factors are known to deeply affect adult gut microbiota composition, often in a time-dependent manner (Hasan & Yang 2019).

For this reason, despite the fact that the lack or overabundance of some bacterial taxa, such as Akkermansia mucinifila and Lactobacillaceae, respectively, are very often associated with obesity (Cani 2019), previously suggested microbial biomarkers of obesity, such as the Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratio, are being revisited (Magne et al. 2020). In general, it is becoming accepted that it is difficult to find two healthy individuals with the same gut microbial composition, although populations with similar microbiomes do exist. Thus, rather than a specific gut microbiota, it is a certain gut microbiome, with a given cocktail of biologically relevant molecules – which may derive also from different microbiota compositions – that usually correlates with, and possibly affords, an either healthy or dysmetabolic status.

Among gut microbiota-derived molecules, possibly the best-characterised ones that are known to influence in a beneficial manner several aspects of energy metabolism, from food intake and energy expenditure to insulin sensitivity and fat accumulation, are the short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). These are small metabolites produced from the digestion of complex fibres. Several GPCR targets have been identified for SCFA (Hernández et al. 2019). Microbial-derived amino acid derivatives, instead, may produce either negative metabolic effects (as in the case of imidazole-propionate and phenylacetic acid) or again contribute to resolving inflammation and insulin resistance, as in the case of the two tryptophan metabolites, indole-3-acetate and tryptamine, which act at the aryl-hydrocarbon receptor (Delzenne et al. 2020). The formation by gut microbiota of secondary bile acids from host cell-derived bile acids seems to mostly have the function of inactivating the latter, which variedly affect metabolism and inflammation (Delzenne et al. 2020). Other metabolites may be derived from the diet, such as trimethylamine-N-oxide, which is associated with obesity and its cardiovascular consequences (Naghipour et al. 2020). Metabolites produced by commensal microorganisms following the dietary intake of certain food components, such as the polyphenols, may differ among individuals with different capabilities of metabolising them, that is, different ‘metabotypes’ (Noerman et al. 2020). Despite the fact the much progress has been made towards the understanding of microbiome-mediated chemical communication, the gut microbiota-derived metabolites discovered so far probably represent only the tip of the iceberg.

The endocannabinoid system in the functional and dysfunctional control of metabolism

The endocannabinoid (eCB) system is a signalling apparatus distributed throughout the mammalian body, and present also in non-mammalian vertebrates and in some invertebrates. It is composed of: (1) two main lipid signalling molecules, the endocannabinoids (eCBs) anandamide (N-arachidonoyl-ethanolamine, AEA) and 2-archidonoyl-glycerol (2-AG); (2) several eCB biosynthesising and inactivating enzymes, of which the most studied ones are N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamine phospholipase D-like esterase (NAPE-PLD) and fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), used for AEA biosynthesis from N-arachidonoyl-phosphatidyl-ethanolamine, and AEA degradation to arachidonic acid (AA) and ethanolamine, respectively; and the sn-1-selective diacylglycerol lipases α and β (DAGLα and DAGLβ) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), used for 2-AG biosynthesis from sn-2-AA-containing diacylglycerols, and 2-AG degradation to AA and glycerol, respectively; and (3) the main eCB receptors, that is, the metabotropic cannabinoid receptor type-1 and -2 (CB1 and CB2) – which are two G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) also activated by the psychotropic cannabinoid Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (hence the name eCB) – and the ionotropic transient receptor potential vanilloid type-1 (TRPV1) channels (Di Marzo 2018) (Fig. 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Endocannabinoid (eCB) signalling in the brain: neuromodulatory and immune modulatory function, receptors and major biosynthetic pathways and enzymes. The type of G-proteins mostly involved in CB1 and CB2 receptor actions are also shown. Pointed arrows denote movement, transformation or activation. Blunted arrows denote inhibition. Abbreviations are defined in the main text, except for: AMPA, α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid; EtOH, ethanol; NAT, N-acyl-transferase; PLC, phospholipase C.

Citation: Journal of Endocrinology 248, 2; 10.1530/JOE-20-0444

In the brain, AEA and 2-AG may be released from post-synaptic dendrites and act at presynaptic CB1 receptors and TRPV1 channels to exert modulatory effects on the release of glutamate and GABA from neuronal terminals (Araque et al. 2017). The effect of CB1 consists of inhibition of neurotransmitter release, and is due to inhibition of voltage-activated ion channels mediated by activation of the α subunit of the Gi/q protein. Instead, TRPV1 activation, by causing Ca2+ influx, may either stimulate neurotransmitter release, when the channel is located presynaptically, or inhibit glutamate action by enhancing the reuptake of AMPA receptors, when TRPV1 is post-synaptic (Fig. 1). The two eCBs also act as immune modulators at CB2 receptors expressed mostly in activated microglia (Tanaka et al. 2020). CB1 receptors in astrocytes and TRPV1 channels in microglia also participate in the neuromodulatory and immunomodulatory actions of eCBs, respectively (Araque et al. 2017, Marrone et al. 2017). A role for mitochondrial CB1 receptors in neurons and astrocytes in the control of the respiratory chain of these cells, and hence of mouse brain function and, subsequently, behaviour is also emerging (Jimenez-Blasco et al. 2020). Indeed, one of the major functions of brain CB1 receptors is to control behaviour, including the motivational, homeostatic and sensory aspects of feeding (Lau et al. 2017, Tarragon & Moreno 2017, Coccurello & Maccarrone 2018). These latter functions are usually stimulated by CB1 receptors through a plethora of neural pathways in several brain areas, thus resulting in increased food intake. Accordingly, following food deprivation, the hypothalamic levels of eCBs are transiently increased (Kirkham et al. 2002). This is believed to be due, in part, to decreased leptin signalling, which normally reduce eCB levels. Hypothalamic and peripheral eCB levels are also increased during obesity (Di Marzo et al. 2001, Cristino et al. 2013, Morello et al. 2016), often in association with dysfunction of leptin, insulin and glucocorticoid signalling, thus contributing to hyperphagia, gut-brain axis dysfunction and inflammation (Balsevich et al. 2017, Forte et al. 2020).

Indeed, the eCB system is now well recognised to participate in all peripheral aspects of glucose and lipid metabolism. This function occurs through CB1 receptor-mediated control of several metabolically relevant tissues, via either the sympathetic nervous system or direct actions on hepatocytes, white and brown adipocytes, skeletal muscle cells, enteroendocrine epithelial cells and pancreatic β-cells. The eCB system becomes dysregulated in these tissues and cells during obesity, and thus participates, also through dysfunctional hormone-mediated and/or inflammatory pathways, in the exacerbation of this condition and its metabolic consequences (Silvestri & Di Marzo 2013, Ruiz de Azua & Lutz 2019). In particular, the following effects have been associated, in animal studies, with CB1 receptor activation in physiological conditions, or CB1 overstimulation in obesity, in the following organs, tissues and cells: (1) in the gastrointestinal tract – decreased satiety, gastrointestinal motility and gastric acid secretion, increased fat-induced cephalic responses, and dysregulation of gut microbiota function (see subsequently); (2) in the liver – increased de novo lipogenesis and insulin resistance, hepatic steatosis and dyslipidemia; (3) in the white adipose tissue – increased energy storage capacity, adipogenesis, lipogenesis, insulin resistance and leptin release, decreased sympathetic innervation and browning and pro-inflammatory macrophage polarisation; (4) in the brown adipose tissue – decreased sympathetic innervation and adaptive thermogenesis; (5) in the skeletal muscle – decreased insulin-mediated glucose uptake and mitochondrial biogenesis, and decreased myotube formation and muscular function; and (6) in pancreatic β-cells – increased basal and glucose-dependent insulin secretion and trafficking and release of insulin granules (Ruiz de Azua & Lutz 2019).

The fact that, in the periphery, as much as in brain areas deputed to food intake, CB1 signalling, in terms of eCB tissue concentrations, may become malfunctioning during obesity in rodents (Silvestri & Di Marzo 2013, Ruiz de Azua & Lutz 2019), possibly explains why alterations in circulating (Blüher et al. 2006, Côté et al. 2007, Martins et al. 2015, Fanelli et al. 2017, 2018) or salivary (Matias et al. 2012) eCB levels often have been associated with human obesity, and even more with the dysmetabolic consequences of visceral obesity (Di Marzo et al. 2009, Abdulnour et al. 2014). Such alterations may be normalised following weight loss-inducing interventions, such as caloric restriction and exercise (Di Marzo et al. 2009) or bariatric surgery (Azar et al. 2019). The presence of polymorphisms in the genes encoding for eCB receptors and anabolic or catabolic enzymes (Martins et al. 2015, Doris et al. 2019, Thethi et al. 2020) may also underlie eCB system dysregulation in obesity.

The endocannabinoidome and its role in energy metabolism control

The link between the eCB system and the control of metabolism became even stronger when it was realised that several congeners of AEA and 2-AG, that is, the long-chain N-acylethanolamines (NAEs) and 2-monoacylglycerols (MAGs) (Hansen & Vana 2019) (Fig. 2), respectively, also play a role in chemical signalling. While these molecules are in most cases weakly active at CB1 and CB2 receptors, they interact with either alternative eCB receptors, such as TRPV1 channels (Movahed et al. 2005, Zygmunt et al. 2013), the role in the metabolism of which is becoming increasingly acknowledged (Christie et al. 2018), or non-eCB receptors. The latter receptors include peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors α (PPARα, for N-palmitoyl-ethanolamine (PEA), and N-oleoyl-ethanolamine (OEA)) and γ (PPARγ) (for AEA at high micromolar concentrations), or orphan GPCRs, such as GPR55 (for PEA and, possibly, AEA and 2-AG) and GPR119 (for MAGs such as mono-oleoyl- and -linoleoyl-glycerol, and for OEA). PPARs and GPR55/119 are, respectively, either already established or emerging players in glucose and lipid metabolism (Poursharifi et al. 2017, Laleh et al. 2019, Ramírez-Orozco et al. 2019). Importantly, AEA and 2-AG share with their congeners the same biosynthetic and anabolic pathways and enzymes (Di Marzo 2008).

Figure 2
Figure 2

Synthesis, inactivation, receptors and main metabolic functions of endocannabinoidome mediators. Thick arrows denote the biochemical reactions and functional connections underlying endocannabinoidome mediator action. Not shown, for the sake of clarity, are the negative effects exerted by almost all unsaturated N-acyl-amides tested so far on T-type (Cav3) Ca2+ channels. Blunted arrows denote inhibition. 2-AG, 2-arachidonoylglycerol; 2-LG, 2-linoleoyl glycerol; 2-OG, 2-oleoyl glycerol; 5/12/15-LOX, 5/12/15-lipoxygenase; 15 HAEA, 15(S)-HETE Ethanolamide; AA, arachidonic acid; ABH4/6/12, αβ-hydrolase 4/6/12; AEA, anandamide; CB1/2, cannabinoid receptor 1/2; COX2, cyclooxygenase 2; DAG, diacylglycerols; DHEA, N-docosahexaenoyl-ethanolamine; EET-EA, epoxyeicosatrienoic acid ethanolamide; FA, fatty acid; FAAH, fatty acid amide hydrolase; FA, free fatty acids; GDE1, glycerophosphodiester phosphodiesterase 1; GPR, G-protein-coupled receptor; LEA, N-linoleoyl-ethanolamine; MAGL, monoacylglycerol lipase; MAG, monoacylglycerols NAAA, N-acylethanolamine-hydrolysing acid amidase, NAPE, N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamine; NAPEPLD, N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamine-specific phospholipase D; OEA, N-oleoyl-ethanolamine; P450, cytochrome p450 oxygenases; PEA, N-palmitoyl-ethanolamine; PG-Gs, prostaglandin glycerol esters; PLCβ, phospholipase Cβ; PPARγ, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ; PPARα, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-α; SEA, N-stearoyl-ethanolamine; TRPV1, transient receptor potential vanilloid type-1 channel; TRPV2, transient receptor potential vanilloid type-2 channel.

Citation: Journal of Endocrinology 248, 2; 10.1530/JOE-20-0444

Beyond NAEs and MAGs, several other families of eCB-like mediators have been discovered that share with AEA either catabolic enzymes or molecular targets, or both (Fig. 2). These families include: (1) the primary fatty acid amides, such as the sleep-inducing factor, oleamide, a FAAH substrate that was suggested to activate CB1 (Leggett et al. 2004), and, like some unsaturated NAEs, to antagonise the transient receptor potential vanilloid type-2 (TRPV2) channel (Schiano Moriello et al. 2018), an emerging regulator of brown adipocyte differentiation and function (Sun et al. 2017); (2) the N-acylated aminoacids, or lipoaminoacids, such as N-oleoyl- and N-arachidonoyl-glycine, which are also inactivated by FAAH, and have been suggested to act at GPR18 or PPARα (Burstein 2018, Donvito et al. 2019); N-oleoylglycine has also been suggested to produce its effects, among which hyperphagia (Wu et al. 2017), by activating CB1, perhaps via inhibition of FAAH and elevation of endogenous AEA levels (Donvito et al., 2019); (3) the N-acylated taurines, such as N-oleoyl- and N-arachidonoyl-taurine, which have been suggested to activate TRPV1 and TRPV4 channels as well as GPR119 (Saghatelian et al. 2004, Grevengoed et al. 2019); and (4) some N-acylated neurotransmitters, such as N-oleoyl- and N-arachidonoyl-serotonin, which antagonise TRPV1 and/or inhibit FAAH (Ortar et al. 2007, Verhoeckx et al. 2011), or N-oleoyl- and N-arachidonoyl-dopamine, which instead activate CB1 and/or TRPV1 (Bisogno et al. 2000, Chu et al. 2003), and were recently shown to also act as inverse agonists at GPR6 (Shrader & Song 2020). Additionally, the enzymatic oxidation of polyunsaturated eCB congeners and eCB-like amides by lipoxygenases (LOXs), cytochrome p450 oxygenases and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), may also lead to bioactive lipids. The molecular targets of these oxidation products are largely unknown but, at least for the LOX and cytochrome p450 oxygenase metabolites, still seem to include CB1 and CB2. Conversely, the COX-2 derivatives of AEA and 2-AG, known as prostamides and prostaglandin glycerol esters, respectively, act on non-cannabinoid, non-prostanoid receptors (Rouzer & Marnett 2011, Urquhart et al. 2015). The ensemble of these eCB-like mediators, their receptors and metabolic enzymes, together with the eCB system, is now referred to as the ‘expanded eCB system’ or ‘endocannabinoidome’ (eCBome).

Much in the same way as the signalling lipids produced by the gut microbiome, also the molecular armamentarium represented by eCBs and eCB-like multi-target mediators, through their metabolically relevant receptors, may produce complex and site/time-dependent actions on lipid and glucose metabolism. In fact, unlike CB1, most other eCBome receptors negatively affect energy balance and play beneficial roles during metabolic disorders (Fig. 2). In particular: (1) CB2 seems to reduce insulin resistance and hence glucose intolerance, possibly also via peripheral anti-inflammatory effects in peripheral tissue-penetrating macrophages (Kumawat & Kaur 2019, Zibolka et al. 2020); (2) TRPV1 inhibits food intake, seemingly via actions at the level of the vagus nerve (Kentish & Page 2015), reduces adipogenesis, ameliorates insulin sensitivity and stimulates white adipocyte browning and brown adipocyte heat production (Baskaran et al. 2016, Christie et al. 2018) – studies using mice in which the Trpv1 gene was inactivated have confirmed the beneficial role of this channel against insulin resistance and body weight gain following a high-fat diet (Page et al. 2019), with some occasional contrasting result (Motter & Ahern 2008); however, such studies have not clarified whether all the metabolic effects of TRPV1 agonists such as capsaicin are due to increased activity of the channel or to its desensitisation, which immediately follows its activation; (3) PPARα activation is well established to induce satiety and reduce fat intake at the level of the small intestine and to counteract hepatic lipogenesis and stimulate fatty acid β-oxidation (Hong et al. 2019), whereas PPARγ activation, whilst necessary for full white adipocyte differentiation, counteracts insulin resistance (Wang et al. 2017) – both these nuclear receptors have been suggested to reduce the low grade chronic inflammation that follows obesity (Silva & Peixoto 2018); (4) GPR55 plays a beneficial role at enhancing insulin sensitivity and reducing adiposity, as shown by studies in Gpr55−/− mice (Meadows et al. 2016, Lipina et al. 2019, Ramírez-Orozco et al. 2019); (5) GPR119 has well established incretin actions by enhancing glucagon-like peptide-1 secretion from intestinal enteroendocrine cells, thereby potentially enhancing insulin release and reducing food intake (Lauffer et al. 2009); (6) GPR18 has been proposed to mediate the reduction of body weight and the enhancement of glucose tolerance of the docosahexaenoic acid derivative, resolvin RvD2 (Pascoal et al. 2017), possibly in synergy with the proposed anti-inflammatory effect of this compound; hence, GPR18 activation by N-acyl-glycines may produce similar effects; and (7) Cav3 (T-type) calcium channels, which are inhibited by several types of long-chain fatty acid amides (Chemin et al. 2014), are much less studied than other eCBome receptors in terms of energy metabolism control, but were proposed to participate in weight gain following a high-fat diet in a recent study carried out with Cav3.1−/− mice (Rosenstand et al. 2020).

In summary, the eCBome, through its various receptors, can affect, in multiple ways and organs, energy metabolism during both physiological and dysmetabolic conditions. In turn, eCBome mediators such as NAEs and MAGs are altered in mouse (Lacroix et al. 2019) and human (Pastor et al. 2016, Fanelli et al. 2018, van Eyk et al. 2018) obesity, as well as in overweight volunteers with high visceral adiposity (Castonguay-Paradis et al. 2020), although not necessarily in the same manner as AEA and 2-AG. In fact, several pathways control the biosynthesis and degradation (Fig. 2) of NAEs and MAGs, and different members of either class of mediators may be regulated by alternative routes in different tissues (Hansen & Vana 2019), as well as by the different availability of dietary fatty acid precursors (Castonguay-Paradis et al. 2020).

The gut microbiome-endocannabinoidome axis in metabolic function and dysfunction

As discussed in the previous sections, through their several molecular signals, both the gut microbiome and eCBome have many ways to influence energy metabolism in mammals. However, as it is often the case with systems controlling similar functions, it is now emerging that the gut microbiome and the eCBome may communicate and influence each other while performing their role in nutrient processing (Cani et al. 2016) (Fig. 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3

The gut microbiome, the endocannabinoidome (eCBome), their role in metabolic control, dysmetabolism and its consequences, and their cross-talk. Grey arrows denote the best-established mechanisms through which the adipose tissue and the gut eCBomes affect the brain (mostly the hypothalamus) and the brain eCBome affects the gut. Pink arrows denote bi-directional effects of the gut microbiome and the eCBome in various organs on energy metabolism and its disruption following high-fat or Western-type diets or dysbiosis, and vice versa; blue arrows denote where the gut microbiome has been suggested so far to affect the eCBome; green arrows denote from where the eCBome has been suggested so far to affect the gut microbiome; and red arrows denote where eCBome-like mediators and other gut microbiota-derived molecules may affect the host. The general chemical structure of eCBome mediators is also shown, with R denoting a variously modified long chain fatty acyl chain, X an NH or O group, and R1 an H, or an ethanol, glycerol, amino acid or neurotransmitter group. HPA, hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal; T2D, type 2 diabetes.

Citation: Journal of Endocrinology 248, 2; 10.1530/JOE-20-0444

Pathological perturbations of gut microbial composition from a ‘healthy’ steady-state, often collectively defined as dysbiosis, which were caused by high-fat diet-induced obesity or chronic treatment with antibiotics, were found to be accompanied by changes in eCB and eCBome signalling in the gut (Muccioli et al. 2010, Guida et al. 2018). Such changes, in turn, participate in mediating the negative effects of dysbiosis, as suggested by the fact that partial correction of the latter condition, with either pre- or pro-biotics, resulted in the counteraction of the pathological consequences of dysbiosis and the restoration of ‘normal’ eCBome signalling. Administration of a metabolically beneficial bacterial species, Akkermansia mucinifila, ameliorates high-fat-diet-induced glucose intolerance and insulin resistance in mice and, at the same time, elevates the intestinal levels of 2-AG and some of its MAG congeners (Everard et al. 2013), as does the ‘protective’ knockout of MyD88, a protein mediating the increase in intestinal permeability and systemic inflammation typical of high-fat diet-induced dysbiosis (Everard et al. 2014). Thus, one may hypothesise that these MAGs, which potentially ameliorate dysmetabolism via TRPV1, GPR119 and CB2 receptor activation, may mediate in part the beneficial effects of these two interventions.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that the presence or absence of the gut microbiota directly affects the host eCBome came from recent studies using germ-free mice. These are mice born and raised in completely sterile conditions, and hence deprived of their microbiota, and in which a functionally active intestinal microbial ecosystem can be reintroduced by means of the procedure known as ‘faecal microbiota transfer’ (FMT). A recent study showed that germ-free mice of both 4 and 13 weeks of age exhibit profound alterations of eCBome signalling in the gut and, particularly, the small intestine. Here, the mRNA expression of some eCBome receptors, namely CB1 and PPARα, was increased, whereas that of GPR18 and GPR55, was decreased. Importantly, these alterations were reversed in adult male mice after 1 week from a successful FMT procedure (Manca et al. 2020a). Interestingly, the brain of juvenile and adult germ-free mice presented with alterations in eCBome mediator concentrations, namely a decrease of 2-AG, MAGs and N-arachidonoyl-glycine and, in females, an increase in AEA and other NAEs. The changes in adult male mice, where the FMT experiment was carried out, were no longer statistically significant 1 week after reintroduction of the gut microbiota (Manca et al. 2020b). Whether or not eCBome signalling alterations in germ-free mice account for some of the metabolic features of these animals, which are characterised, among others, by higher energy expenditure and lower intestinal inflammation and immunity (Wolf 2006, Rogala et al. 2020), as well by higher HPA axis activity (Farzi et al. 2018), remains to be investigated.

If the gut microbiota modulates the eCBome, pharmacological or genetic manipulation of eCBome signalling can modify the composition of gut microbiota, and hence its molecular signalling apparatus, especially following high-fat diet-induced obesity. This can be used to partly prevent the negative metabolic effects and systemic inflammation induced by dysbiosis, as is the case of CB1 receptor antagonists (Muccioli et al. 2010, Mehrpouya-Bahrami et al. 2017) (or of chronic treatment with THC, which desensitises CB1 receptors (Cluny et al. 2015)). TRPV1 agonists, such as capsaicin (Kang et al. 2017, Song et al. 2017, Hui et al. 2020), produce similar effects. The strong modification of gut microbiota composition observed following administration of exogenous NAEs, such OEA and PEA, were suggested to underlie the reduction of obesity and dysmetabolism typically produced by the former compound (Cristiano et al. 2018, Laleh et al. 2019), and the analgesia and amelioration of behavioural deficits in models of chronic pain and autism, exerted by PEA (Di Paola et al. 2018, Guida et al. 2020). Given the lack of eCBome receptors in bacteria, it is likely that these effects are indirect, that is, mediated by actions on, for example, host intestinal cells. However, one should not rule out the possibility that gut microorganisms, much in the same way as they do with several drugs (Weersma et al. 2020), respond to eCBome mediators, and/or metabolise them. Indeed, many of these lipids have a much older evolutionary history than their receptors (Elphick 2012), and have been found, for example, also in yeasts (Merkel et al. 2005). Accordingly, a recent study showed that incubation of bacterial cultures obtained from human faecal microbiota samples with a cocktail of NAEs (namely AEA, OEA, PEA and LEA, admittedly at high micromolar concentrations), deeply affects ex vivo gut microbial composition, leading to an increase in Proteobacteria and a decrease in Bacteriodetes, and, at the family level, to Enterococcaceae, Veillonellaceae and Enterobacteriaceae blooming at the expense of Streptococcaceae (Fornelos et al. 2020). Previous evidence of non-eCBome receptor-mediated effects of AEA, NAEs and 2-lauroyl-glycerol in either yeasts, protists or bacteria, which often express orthologues of eCBome metabolising enzymes, is also available (Anagnostopoulos et al. 2010, Schlievert et al. 2018, Feldman et al. 2020, Sionov et al. 2020). Emblematic of the target promiscuity of eCBs and their congeners, a very recent study showed that 2-AG inhibits the induction of virulence of enteric pathogens by antagonising the bacterial receptor QseC, a histidine kinase found in Enterobacteriaceae and promoting the activation of pathogen-associated type three secretion systems (Ellermann et al. 2020).

As mentioned previously, genetic deletion of enzymes that biosynthesise or inactivate eCBome mediators is also being used to see whether a cause–effect relationship exists between eCBome signalling and gut microbiota composition. Targeted adipocyte or intestinal epithelial cell deletion of NAPE-PLD, the most studied NAE biosynthetic enzyme, was accompanied by disruption of different gut microbiota taxa depending on the cell type targeted (Geurts et al. 2015, Everard et al. 2019). In both cases, the mutant mice exhibited lower levels of NAEs in the tissues where the enzyme had been genetically inactivated, although with some differences: whilst in the adipocyte-specific Napepld knockout mice AEA levels were unaltered, and those of OEA and PEA were reduced, in the intestinal epithelial cell-specific knockouts the concentrations of all the measured NAEs, including AEA, were reduced, as were, unexpectedly, those of 2-AG, although to a lesser extent. These latter differences became less marked following a high-fat diet, with only AEA and LEA levels being significantly reduced. Both types of genetically modified mice exhibited dramatically worse metabolic profiles after high-fat diet-induced obesity, in terms of, for example, enhanced fat accumulation or hyperphagia, reduced energy expenditure and insulin sensitivity or enhanced fatty liver. This suggested that the effect of the reduction in metabolically beneficial NAE (i.e. OEA, LEA) signalling at targets such as TRPV1, PPARα or GPR119 prevailed on the effect of reduced CB1 activation by AEA or 2-AG. Furthermore, both genotypic modifications were accompanied by profound changes in gut bacterial composition, suggesting that NAEs influence the microbiota not only, as it would be expected, from the intestine, but also from the adipose tissue. However, gut microbiome alterations were clearly shown to contribute to dysmetabolism only in adipocyte-specific Napepld knockout mice, since the dysmetabolic phenotype of these mice was partly reversed by antibiotics or transferred to germ-free mice by FMT. On the other hand, in intestinal epithelial cell-specific Napepld−/− mice, administration of A. muciniphila produced the same beneficial metabolic effects as in WT mice, suggesting that such effects of this bacterial species do not depend on intestinal NAEs (Geurts et al. 2015, Everard et al. 2019). Nevertheless, increasing evidence indicates that NAEs such as OEA and PEA, similar to oleamide and N-arachidonoyl-dopamine, and opposite to AEA and 2-AG, counteract, via TRPV1 or PPARα-mediated mechanisms, the increased permeability in the intestinal epithelial cell barrier (also known as ‘leaky gut’) that is often a consequence of dysbiosis (Karwad et al. 2019).

A very recent study investigated if enhanced MAG levels in mice lacking an active MAGL (Mgll−/− mice), which present with decreased fat preference, adiposity and steatosis and improved insulin sensitivity after a high-fat diet, due to both CB1-dependent and independent mechanisms (Yoshida et al. 2019), also exhibit an altered faecal microbiota. This was indeed found to be the case, with differences becaming stronger and more statistically significant with increasing durations of an obesogenic high-fat diet. Interestingly, some bacterial families, including species previously described to be either metabolically beneficial or detrimental to high-fat diet-induced obesity and glucose intolerance, were differentially altered in WT and Mgll−/− mice, in a manner to suggest their involvement in the obesity-prone or -resistant phenotype of the two genotypes (Dione et al., in press). These alterations, as well as the metabolically healthy phenotype of Mgll−/− mice, may have been due to either overstimulation and desensitisation of CB1 receptors by high 2-AG levels (Imperatore et al. 2015), or to modulation of non-CB1 receptors by the elevated concentrations of the other MAGs. However, one pitfall of studies using genetically modified mice with different propensity for obesity is that it is difficult to understand to what extent their gut microbiome alterations are the direct effect of altered eCBome signalling rather than of the obesity-associated dysmetabolism. Therefore, the authors of this study also performed ‘culturomics’ experiments with WT mouse faecal samples. These experiments consisted of incubating, under several different culturing conditions, faecal microbiota-containing samples with high micromolar concentrations of 2-AG or MAGs, in order to mimic ex vivo the situation occurring in the Mgll−/− mouse intestine. The authors found that, under certain culturing conditions, some of the changes in the faecal microbiota composition could indeed be recapitulated, supporting the hypothesis that the higher concentrations of MAGs in Mgll−/− mice, rather than, or in addition to, the metabolic conditions of these animals, could be the direct cause of some of such changes also in vivo (Dione et al., in press).

Two studies were recently carried out in mice and human volunteers with the aim of correlating diet-induced changes in gut microbiota composition with changes in eCBome mediators and proteins. In mice, a 56-day administration of a high fat–high sucrose diet caused a gradual perturbation of the gut microbiota composition, ileal and plasma eCBome mediator concentrations and ileal eCBome enzyme and receptor mRNA expression, along with enhanced body weight and early glucose intolerance. Importantly, weight-independent and time-dependent correlations were found between the relative abundances of, among others, the metabolically relevant genera Barnesiella, Eubacterium, Adlercreutzia, Parasutterella, Propionibacterium, Enterococcus, and Methylobacterium and the concentrations of AEA or the anti-inflammatory NAE, N-docosahexaenoyl-ethanolamine (DHEA). These findings highlight the potential functional interaction between the gut microbiota and the eCBome during the metabolic adaptation to prolonged high-fat and high-sucrose feeding (Lacroix et al. 2019). In a study carried out in a cohort of 195 healthy volunteers from the Québec province, circulating levels of all MAGs and NAEs other than OEA correlated with body fat mass and visceral adiposity. Additionally, the self-reported fat dietary intakes of specific fatty acids were positively associated with the plasma levels of 2-AG and omega-3-fatty acid-derived NAEs and MAGs, irrespective of the body fat distribution. In a subset of the individuals, a 2-day Mediterranean diet intervention increased circulating levels of NAEs and MAGs according to similar changes in the intake of the corresponding fatty acids. Importantly, some metabolically relevant gut bacterial families (e.g. Veillonellaceae, Peptostreptococcaceae and Akkermansiaceae) were associated with most NAEs or omega-3-fatty acid-derived MAGs, independently of body fat distribution and dietary FA intake (Castonguay-Paradis et al., 2020). In particular, the positive correlation between Veillonellaceae and NAEs was in agreement with the aforementioned ex vivo study showing a stimulatory effect of these eCBome mediators on this family of commensal bacteria (Fornelos et al. 2020).

Finally, evidence exists that commensal bacteria may influence the eCBome in its function also by producing eCB-like molecules that are capable of binding the same receptors as their host counterparts. The first such compound to be identified was N-acyl-3-hydroxypalmitoyl-glycine (commendamide), an agonist for GPR132 (Cohen et al. 2015). This is a GPCR that, in an independent study, was later found to be activated by ‘mammalian’ N-acyl-glycines, including N-palmitoyl-, N-linoleoyl- and N-oleoyl-glycine, and also by the primary amide, linoleamide (Foster et al. 2019), but for which no role in energy metabolism has been described to date. Subsequently, by looking for N-acyl amide synthase genes enriched in various human microbiota species, the same group identified a series of additional N-acyl-amides capable of activating other mammalian GPCRs. Among these compounds, N-oleoylserinol was found also in human faecal samples and shown to activate GPR119, thus potentially participating in the beneficial actions of some commensal bacteria on insulin sensitivity (Cohen et al. 2017). Interestingly, GPR132 is also a receptor for oxidised fatty acids, such as 9-hydroxy-octadecanoic acid, which are sensors of lipid overload and oxidative stress, and are involved in atherosclerosis, one of the consequences of visceral obesity (Vangaveti et al. 2010). Oxidised fatty acids can also be produced by commensal bacteria, as in the case of 10-oxo-12(Z)-octadecenoic acid, another linoleic acid metabolite produced by lactic acid bacteria, which enhances energy metabolism by activation of TRPV1 (Kim et al. 2017). Since, as mentioned previously, also di- and polyunsaturated eCBome lipids can be oxidised to bioactive compounds, it will be interesting to investigate the possibility that gut bacteria produce these metabolites using intestinal epithelial cell-originating eCB-like mediators, such as LEA, as precursors.

In summary, several recent studies seem to support the concept that the gut microbiome and eCBome signalling communicate for the fine-tuning of lipid and glucose metabolism under both physiological and dysmetabolic conditions, and in gastrointestinal tissues as well as in the adipose tissue and brain (Fig. 3). The molecular mechanisms and functional importance of such communication, however, still need to be fully elucidated. Additionally, since, as discussed previously, several metabolites typically produced by commensal bacteria (e.g. SCFA, indole derivatives, etc.) profoundly affect metabolism, it would not be surprising to find that these molecules also indirectly affect eCBome signalling, and studies in this direction need to be fostered.

Future perspectives for the treatment of metabolic and obesity-related disorders

From the literature data discussed in this article, it is possible to take a few messages useful to conceive and design new therapeutic approaches for the treatment of obesity and related co-morbidities. First, it is clear that both the gut microbiome and the eCB system, particularly with its expansion to the eCBome, should be considered as targets for new pharmacological and nutritional therapies against the metabolic syndrome and its hepatic, renal and cardiovascular consequences. In particular, interventions aimed at favouring those commensal species that, by mostly producing metabolically beneficial metabolites like the SCFAs and/or eCB-like mediators, acting at insulin-sensitising and weight-reducing molecular targets, should be sought after. These interventions potentially include high fibre diets, prebiotics and probiotics, but, in the future, may also encompass ‘post-biotics’, that is, metabolites and proteins isolated from beneficial commensal microorganisms and produced by the latter following interactions with the host and/or administration of certain micro and macronutrients. A typical example of research in this direction is represented by recent studies with A. mucinifila and one of its proteins (Plovier et al. 2017). On the other hand, pharmacological targeting of previously known molecular targets that are increasingly becoming considered as eCBome receptors beyond CB1 and CB2, that is, GPR55, GPR18, GPR119 and PPARα and γ, should continue to be pursued. New eCBome targets, such as GPR110 and GPR132, known to play a homeostatic role in inflammation (Kern et al. 2018, Park et al. 2019), should start to be investigated also in the context of metabolic control and obesity. Conversely, beyond its well established anti-inflammatory function and potential exploitation against obesity-related atherogenesis, steatosis and heart and kidney dysfunction (Gruden et al. 2016, Pacher et al. 2018), the potential beneficial role of CB2 in obesity and insulin sensitivity should be clarified. Also in the case of therapeutic eCBome targeting, nutritional approaches, such as those providing high intake of oleic and omega-3 fatty acids, should be studied more in depth, with a closer eye on the extent to which they may lead to increased beneficial eCBome (i.e. mediated by OEA, PEA, oleoyl- and linoleoyl-glycerol and DHEA) signalling at the expense of dysmetabolic eCB-mediated CB1 signalling (Castonguay-Paradis et al. 2020). This should be done without diminishing too much the otherwise pro-homeostatic role of the two cannabinoid receptors (Di Marzo 2018).

In fact, all these strategies should always keep into account the fact that eCBs and eCB-like molecules, similar to many gut microbiota-derived molecules, are multi-target mediators, and hence manipulation of their levels might cause unpredictable results. Additionally, strategies aiming at targeting the gut microbiome and the eCBome should take into consideration the high degree of interaction that is emerging between these two ‘omes’. These limitations, together with the acquisition of ‘big data’ from the plethora of ongoing studies on these topics, will require the ever-increasing application of systems biology, machine learning and other bioinformatics methodologies (Camacho et al. 2018) to these new therapeutic approaches.

No matter how challenging, these efforts might nevertheless be rewarding, also in consideration of the several ‘non-cardiometabolic’ co-morbidities that often accompany obesity, T2D and the metabolic syndrome. These include anxiety and depression (Simon et al. 2006) and different types of cancer (Lauby-Secretan et al. 2016). Once again, such co-morbidities have been associated with both gut microbiome and eCBome dysfunction (Ligresti et al. 2016, Di Marzo 2018, Rea et al. 2020, Rossi et al. 2020). Hence, it is possible that therapies aiming at modulating these two complex systems and restoring their pro-homeostatic role in the control of energy metabolism, may result beneficial also for obesity-related affective disorders and malignancies, even beyond their effect on obesity and the metabolic syndrome.

In summary, the future of the research on the gut microbiome and the emerging eCBome has never looked more challenging and exciting, and will likely bring new solutions for the treatment of a plethora of pathological conditions, both related and not to disrupted control of energy metabolism.

Declaration of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest could be perceived as prejudicing the impartiality of this review.

Funding

V D is the holder of the Canada Research Excellence Chair in the Microbiome-Endocannabinoidome Axis in Metabolic Health (CERC-MEND), which is funded by the Tri-Agency of the Canadian Federal Government (The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). V D is also a recipient of grants by the Canadian Foundation of Innovation and the Sentinelle Nord-Apogée program (to Université Laval). F A I is the recipient of a Duchenne Parent Project NL.

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    Figure 1

    Endocannabinoid (eCB) signalling in the brain: neuromodulatory and immune modulatory function, receptors and major biosynthetic pathways and enzymes. The type of G-proteins mostly involved in CB1 and CB2 receptor actions are also shown. Pointed arrows denote movement, transformation or activation. Blunted arrows denote inhibition. Abbreviations are defined in the main text, except for: AMPA, α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid; EtOH, ethanol; NAT, N-acyl-transferase; PLC, phospholipase C.

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    Figure 2

    Synthesis, inactivation, receptors and main metabolic functions of endocannabinoidome mediators. Thick arrows denote the biochemical reactions and functional connections underlying endocannabinoidome mediator action. Not shown, for the sake of clarity, are the negative effects exerted by almost all unsaturated N-acyl-amides tested so far on T-type (Cav3) Ca2+ channels. Blunted arrows denote inhibition. 2-AG, 2-arachidonoylglycerol; 2-LG, 2-linoleoyl glycerol; 2-OG, 2-oleoyl glycerol; 5/12/15-LOX, 5/12/15-lipoxygenase; 15 HAEA, 15(S)-HETE Ethanolamide; AA, arachidonic acid; ABH4/6/12, αβ-hydrolase 4/6/12; AEA, anandamide; CB1/2, cannabinoid receptor 1/2; COX2, cyclooxygenase 2; DAG, diacylglycerols; DHEA, N-docosahexaenoyl-ethanolamine; EET-EA, epoxyeicosatrienoic acid ethanolamide; FA, fatty acid; FAAH, fatty acid amide hydrolase; FA, free fatty acids; GDE1, glycerophosphodiester phosphodiesterase 1; GPR, G-protein-coupled receptor; LEA, N-linoleoyl-ethanolamine; MAGL, monoacylglycerol lipase; MAG, monoacylglycerols NAAA, N-acylethanolamine-hydrolysing acid amidase, NAPE, N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamine; NAPEPLD, N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamine-specific phospholipase D; OEA, N-oleoyl-ethanolamine; P450, cytochrome p450 oxygenases; PEA, N-palmitoyl-ethanolamine; PG-Gs, prostaglandin glycerol esters; PLCβ, phospholipase Cβ; PPARγ, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ; PPARα, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-α; SEA, N-stearoyl-ethanolamine; TRPV1, transient receptor potential vanilloid type-1 channel; TRPV2, transient receptor potential vanilloid type-2 channel.

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    Figure 3

    The gut microbiome, the endocannabinoidome (eCBome), their role in metabolic control, dysmetabolism and its consequences, and their cross-talk. Grey arrows denote the best-established mechanisms through which the adipose tissue and the gut eCBomes affect the brain (mostly the hypothalamus) and the brain eCBome affects the gut. Pink arrows denote bi-directional effects of the gut microbiome and the eCBome in various organs on energy metabolism and its disruption following high-fat or Western-type diets or dysbiosis, and vice versa; blue arrows denote where the gut microbiome has been suggested so far to affect the eCBome; green arrows denote from where the eCBome has been suggested so far to affect the gut microbiome; and red arrows denote where eCBome-like mediators and other gut microbiota-derived molecules may affect the host. The general chemical structure of eCBome mediators is also shown, with R denoting a variously modified long chain fatty acyl chain, X an NH or O group, and R1 an H, or an ethanol, glycerol, amino acid or neurotransmitter group. HPA, hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal; T2D, type 2 diabetes.

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