Is there gold in bugs? Scientists and natural health experts say yes. The burgeoning field of the microbiome—the bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea that live in our guts (our stomachs and intestinal tracts)—is becoming the health issue to watch. 

The gut microbiome, evidence says, is linked to numerous aspects of health—from inflammation and autoimmune diseases to weight gain and mood. As part of this gamut of connections, researchers are also eyeing its role in digestive disorders, including the vast and still perplexing universe of gluten sensitivity. “There’s been a big explosion in funding a lot of microbiome research, and of course gluten sensitivity is a huge area to study,” says Florence Comite, MD, a personalized medicine physician in New York City.

With rapidly evolving science around both the microbiome and gluten sensitivity, the landscape is likely to be dynamic, shifting toward targeted treatments that could prove to be effective. 

The gluten connection

When Fortune named 2015 The Year of the Microbiome, it was onto something big—or, if you prefer: many things that are very, very small. Encouraging research indicates we’re just beginning to learn how the microbiome affects human health. In 2013, scientists announced that they were able to conquer severe bacterial infections known as Clostridium difficile (or C. diff) in 90 percent of patients by giving them a transplant of a healthy person’s microbes—results that have spurred confidence and hope in those who are interested in unlocking many more of the gut microbiome’s mysteries.

Food sensitivities are a logical fit for microbiome research. Gluten sensitivity—which can generate a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, upset stomach, and headaches, along with myriad nongastrointestinal effects—is still hotly debated. If you have celiac disease, a blood test and biopsy can provide a definitive diagnosis. “Beyond that, you get into a gray zone,” says Joseph Murray, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who specializes in gluten sensitivity and intestinal inflammation. No reliable test exists—yet—to determine if someone has nonceliac gluten sensitivity. “I think of it on a spectrum,” Comite says. The science might also be somewhat askew; though gluten is found in several grains, including barley and rye, many “gluten” studies to date have focused on wheat-based foods rather than gluten specifically.