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Learning How Gut Bacteria Influence Health: Scientists Crack Sparse Genome of Microbe Linked to Autoimmunity

Scientists have deciphered the genome of a bacterium implicated as a key player in regulating the immune system of mice

 

The genomic analysis provides the first glimpse of its unusually sparse genetic blueprint and offers hints about how it may activate a powerful immune response that protects mice from infection but also spurs harmful inflammation.

The researchers, led by Dan Littman, the Helen L. and Martin S. Kimmel Professor of Molecular Immunology at NYU School of Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and Ivaylo Ivanov, PhD, of Columbia University Medical Center, published their findings in the September 15, 2011, issue of Cell Host and Microbe. The study suggests that the gut-dwelling microorganism, named segmented filamentous bacteria (SFB), is genetically distinct from all 1,200 bacterial genomes studied so far, reflecting its relatively unique role in the gut.

Although SFB was first identified more than 40 years ago, it wasn't until 2009 that Dr. Littman and an international team of collaborators discovered that it can recruit specialized T cells, called Th17 cells, in the small intestine of mice. These potent immune cells, they subsequently found, protected the mice from disease-causing Citrobacter rodentium bacteria, but also made them more susceptible to inflammation and autoimmune arthritis. Those initial results suggested other intestinal bacteria might also regulate immune function.

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