Researchers found that early in life intestinal microorganisms “educate” the thymus to develop T cells; findings could lead to improved immune system therapeutics and associated clinical laboratory tests
The researchers published their findings in Nature. They used engineered mice as the test subjects and say the study could lead to a greater understanding of human conditions such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In turn, this new knowledge could lead to new diagnostic tests for clinical laboratories.
“From the time we are born, our immune system is set up so that it can learn as much as it can to distinguish the good from the bad,” Matthew Bettini, PhD, Associate Professor of Pathology said in a University of Utah news release.
Does Gut Bacteria ‘Educate’ the Immune System?
The researchers were attempting to learn how the body develops T cells specific to intestinal microorganisms. T cells, they noted, are “educated” in the thymus, an organ in the upper chest that is key to the adaptive immune system.
“Humans and their microbiota have coevolved a mutually beneficial relationship in which the human host provides a hospitable environment for the microorganisms and the microbiota provides many advantages for the host, including nutritional benefits and protection from pathogen infection,” they wrote in their study. “Maintaining this relationship requires a careful immune balance to contain commensal microorganisms within the lumen, while limiting inflammatory anti-commensal responses.”
Findings Challenge Earlier Assumptions about Microbiota’s Influence on Immunity
The researchers began by seeding the intestines of mice with segmented filamentous bacteria (SFB), which they described as “one of the few commensal microorganisms for which a microorganism-specific T-cell receptor has been identified.” In addition, SFB-specific T cells can be tracked using a magnetic enrichment technique, they wrote in Nature.
They discovered that in young mice, microbial antigens from the intestines migrated to the thymus, resulting in an expansion of T cells specific to SFB. But they did not see an expansion of T cells in adult mice, suggesting that the process of adapting to microbiota happens early.
“Our study challenges previous assumptions that potential pathogens have no influence on immune cells that are developing in the thymus,” Bettini said in the news release. “Instead, we see that there is a window of opportunity for the thymus to learn from these bacteria. Even though these events that shape which T cells are present happen early in life, they can have a greater impact later in life.”
For example, T cells specific to microbiota can also protect against closely related harmful bacteria, the researchers found. “Mice populated with E. coli at a young age were more than six times as likely to survive a lethal dose of Salmonella later in life,” the news release noted. “The results suggest that building immunity to microbiota also builds protection against harmful bacteria the body has yet to encounter.”
According to the researchers, in addition to protecting against pathogens, “microbiota-specific T cells have pathogenic potential.” For example, “defects in these mechanisms could help explain why the immune system sometimes attacks good bacteria in the wrong place, causing the chronic inflammation that’s responsible for inflammatory bowel disease,” they suggested.
Other Clinical Laboratory Research into the Human Microbiome
All of this suggests the potential in the future “for clinical laboratories and microbiologists to do microbiome testing in support of clinical care,” said Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report. Of course, more research is needed in these areas.
“We believe that our findings may be extended to areas of research where certain bacteria have been found to be either protective or pathogenic for other conditions, such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes,” Bettini said in the University of Utah news release. “Now we’re wondering, will this window of bacterial exposure and T cell development also be important in initiating these diseases?”
Half of the genes identified were found to be singletons, unique to specific individuals, offering the possibility of developing precision medicine therapies targeted to specific patients, as well as clinical laboratory tests
The scientists also found that more than half of the bacterial genes examined occurred only once (called “singletons”) and were specific to each individual. A total of 11.8 million of these singletons came from oral samples and 12.6 million of them derived from gut samples, a Harvard news release noted.
In a paper published in Cell Host and Microbe the researchers state, “Despite substantial interest in the species diversity of the human microbiome and its role in disease, the scale of its genetic diversity, which is fundamental to deciphering human-microbe interactions, has not been quantified.”
To determine this quantity, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of metagenomes from the human mouth and gut among 3,655 samples from 13 unique studies. Of their findings, they wrote, “We found staggering genetic heterogeneity in the dataset, identifying a total of 45,666,334 non-redundant genes (23,961,508 oral and 22,254,436 gut) at the 95% identity level.”
The scientists also found that while genes commonly found in
all the samples seemed to drive the basic functions of a microbe’s survival,
the singletons perform more specialized functions within the body, such as
creating barriers to protect the micro-organisms from external onslaughts and
helping to build up resistance to antibiotics.
“Some of these unique genes appear to be important in solving evolutionary challenges,” said Braden Tierney, a PhD student at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the study, in the news release. “If a microbe needs to become resistant to an antibiotic because of exposure to drugs, or suddenly faces a new selective pressure, the singleton genes may be the wellspring of genetic diversity the microbe can pull from to adapt,” he concluded.
‘More Genes in the Human Microbiome than Stars in the
According to their published paper, the team of microbiologists and bioinformaticians pinpointed more than 46 million bacterial genes contained within 3,655 Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) samples. They identified 23,961,508 non-redundant genes in the oral samples and 22,254,436 non-redundant genes in the intestinal samples.
While similar research in the past has targeted bacteria in
either the gut or the mouth, the scientists believe their study is the first
that analyzed DNA collected from both areas simultaneously.
“Just like no two siblings are genetically identical, no two bacterial strains are genetically identical, either,” said study co-author Chirag Patel, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard’s Blavatnik Institute. “Two members of the same bacterial strain could have markedly different genetic makeup, so information about bacterial species alone could mask critical differences that arise from genetic variation.”
The scientists also endeavored to determine the number of
genes that reside in the human microbiome but found the precise number difficult
to identify. One calculation estimated that number to be around 232 million,
while another suggested the number could be substantially higher.
“Whatever it may be, we hope that our catalog, along with a
searchable web application, will have many practical uses and seed many directions
of research in the field of host-microbe relationships,” stated Patel in the
New Diagnostics for Clinical Laboratories?
This type of research could have lasting effects on clinical
laboratories. As the volume of data generated by diagnostic testing of microbes
in patients opens new understanding of how these factors affect human disease
and create differences from one individual to another, the increased number of
genes and gene mutations mean that microbiology laboratories will increase
their use of information technology and analytical software tools.
“Ours is a gateway study, the first step on a what will
likely be a long journey toward understanding how differences in gene content
drive microbial behavior and modify disease risk,” said Tierney in the Harvard
That’s good news, because new biomarkers derived from such
research will help microbiologists and other clinical laboratory scientists
more accurately detect disease and identify the best therapies for individual