Showing posts with label gut flora. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gut flora. Show all posts

Friday, December 30, 2016

This Month in Blastocystis Research (DEC 2016)

I would like to end the year by briefly highlight three of the most important/interesting papers in Blastocystis research published in 2016 (and not co-authored by me).

The first article that comes to my mind is one by Pauline Scanlan and colleagues, who took to investigating the prevalence of Blastocystis in US households (family units). The reason why I'm mentioning this article is not so much due to its approach; it's much more related to the fact that even when molecular methods are used (i.e., highly sensitive methods), the prevalence in this population was only 7%, and the vast majority of Blastocystis carriers were adults. The prevalence is much lower in this population (Colorado) than in a country such as Denmark. I'm interested in knowing the reason for this difference. Are people in Colorado less exposed or are they less susceptible than people in Denmark? I'm also interested in knowing why there was only one child among the carriers... we see similar trends elsewhere: Blastocystis is a parasite that emerges only in adolescence and adulthood. Meanwhile, we see a lot of Dientamoeba in toddlers and smaller children, with more or less all children being infected at some point - at least in Denmark; here, geographical differences may exist as well. Mixed infection with Blastocystis and Dientamoeba in adults is not uncommon, so it's not that they outcompete each other.

Next up, is the article by Audebert and colleagues who published in the Nature-affiliated Scientific Reports on gut microbiota profiling of Blastocystis-positive and -negative individuals. I already made a small summary of the article in this post.

While we gain valuable insight into gut microbiota structure, we also need to know what these microbes are able to do. We need to know about the interaction with the host and how they influence our metabolism. I hope to see more studies emerging on the metabolic repertoire of Blastocystis and how the parasite may be capable of influencing the diversity and abundance of bacterial, fungal and protist species in the gut. What would also be useful is a drug that selectively targets Blastocystis so that we can be able to selectively eradicate the parasite from its niche in order to see what happens to the surrounding microbiota and - if in vivo - to the host.

The last article is authored by my Turkish colleagues Özgür Kurt, Funda Dogruman-Al, and Mehmet Tanyüksel, who pose the rhetorical question: "Blastocystis eradication - really necessary for all?" in the special issue on Blastocystis in Parasitology International. For some time I have been thinking of developing a reply to the authors as a Letter to the Editor with the title "Blastocystis eradication - really necessary at all?" Nevermind, quite similar to what we did back in 2010, the authors review the effect of various drugs that have been used to try eradicate Blastocystis. Moreover, they acknowledge the fact that Blastocystis is often seen in healthy individuals, and that its role in the development of gut microbiota and host immune responses should be subject to further scrutiny. They even suggest that the role of Blastocystis as a probiotic should be investigated. It's great to see clinicians think along these lines, since this is an important step towards expanding the revolution lately seen in Blastocystis research, exemplified by studies such as that by Audebert et al. mentioned above.

So, wishing you all a Happy New Year and a great 2017, I'd like to finish by encouraging you to stay tuned; soon, I will be posting some very... interesting... neeeeeeewwwws...


Audebert C, Even G, Cian A, Blastocystis Investigation Group., Loywick A, Merlin S, Viscogliosi E, & Chabé M (2016). Colonization with the enteric protozoa Blastocystis is associated with increased diversity of human gut bacterial microbiota. Scientific Reports, 6 PMID: 27147260 

Kurt Ö, Doğruman Al F, & Tanyüksel M (2016). Eradication of Blastocystis in humans: Really necessary for all? Parasitology International, 65 (6 Pt B), 797-801 PMID: 26780545

Scanlan PD, Knight R, Song SJ, Ackermann G, & Cotter PD (2016). Prevalence and genetic diversity of Blastocystis in family units living in the United States. Infection, Genetics and Evolution, 45, 95-97 PMID: 27545648

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This Month in Blastocystis Research - MAR 2015

"Show me your gut bacteria and I'll tell you if you're infected with Entamoeba"

One of my 'partners in crime', science reporter Jop de Vrieze, made me aware of a study just published now by Elise R Morton and colleagues. The study appeared in bioRxiv—The Preprint Server for Biology, operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The study is totally in line with one of the research foci in our lab.

The paper is called 'Variation in rural African gut microbiomes is strongly shaped by parasitism and diet', and can be downloaded here. The backbone in this type of research is the recognition that studies revealing a large contrast between the microbiomes of populations in developing countries and those of populations in urban industrialised areas have shown that geography is an important factor associated with the gut microbiome, but that such studies yet have to disentangle the effects of factors such as climate, diet, host genetics, hygiene and parasitism.

It's very refreshing that for once, 'parasitism' is included in such considerations. As mentioned in one or more of my previous blog posts, we have metagenomics data stongly indicating that Blastocystis colonisation is associated with certain microbial communities. As of yet, we have no idea about cause and effet, but the idea alone is immensely intriguing.

A large and a small cyst of Entamoeba coli. Courtesy of Dr Marianne Lebbad.
Now, Morton et al. have produced data that suggest that the presence of Entamoeba—another gut-associated eukaryotic genus comprising multiple species of varying pathogencitiy—is strongly correlated with microbial composition and diversity. They showed that an individual's liability to being infected by Entamoeba could be predicted with 79% accuracy based on gut microbiome composition.

The authors used 16S PCR and Illumina-based sequencing of 16S amplicons, and I could have wished that molecular assays, e.g., the 18S PCR that we have developed in our lab + associated software, had also been used to test the faecal samples from the 64 individuals enrolled in the study in order to obtain more precise data, not only on Entamoeba but also on other human-associated gut protists, such as Blastocystis.

While alpha (intra-host) diversity of Entamoeba-positive individuals was significantly higher than that of Entamoeba-negative individuals, analysis of the beta (inter-host) diversity revealed that gut communities across Entamoeba-positive individuals were more similar than across Entamoeba-negative individuals, suggesting that, as alpha diversity increases, there are fewer potential stable states for individual gut communities, or that infection by Entamoeba drives changes in the microbiome that are dominant over other factors.

Right—this is Entamoeba, I know, but in principle, the type of analyses that were performed in the present study could be applicable to Blastocystis, Dientamoeba, and other gut parasites, which may help us understand their role in health and disease. Are these parasites able to influence gut microbiota? Can they be used for gut microbiota manipulation? Or do they only infect people with certain microbiota profiles? Time will show... maybe.

For those of you who would like to read more about what is shaping our microbiomes and how the gut microbiota may impact on our gastrointestinal health, I recently did a couple of blog posts for United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Education that might be of some interest:

Are we finally saluting the fungal kingdom as a co-ruler of GI health and disease?

The intestinal microbiome—Rosetta Stone or Tower of Babel?


Morton ER, Lynch J, Froment A, Lafosse S, Heyer E, Przeworski M, Blekham R, Segurel L.
Variation in rural African gut microbiomes is strongly shaped by parasitism and diet. bioRxiv doi

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What's In A Name?

When people have had their stools examined and are told that they have Blastocystis, most of them will not have a clue about what that is. And eventually they'll be told that it's a parasite. A parasite? As in tapeworm? Ok it's not. But then what? As in malaria? Oh... ok, I see... So it's....? Huh? As in ... what???

Now, which are those parasites in and on your body, and what in fact makes a parasite? Depends on who you ask. For parasitologists and public health/clinical microbiologists, a parasite means something along the lines of a eukaryotic organism (i.e. not a bacterium and not a virus) that is not a fungus and that is capable of living and maybe even multiplying on or inside another organism. Some organisms are considered somewhere in between parasites and fungi, such as microsporidia and Pneumocystis. But whether an organism is a fungus or a parasite is not important in most cases. You will also sometimes see that 'parasite' is used as a term meant to cover living organisms causing disease, and in this sense the term may include for instance bacteria and viruses; for instance. A lot of research deals with 'host-parasite' relationships, evolution of virulence and tolerance in parasites and hosts, respectively; also here, bacteria may be referred to as parasites.

 Mosquitos are practically parasites that may transmit other parasites. Source (eyeweed on Flickr).

The word 'parasite' stems from Greek, and means something like 'eating beside' or 'eating at someone else's table'. Parasitism is a non-mutual symbiotic relationship where one organism (the parasite) benefits at the expense of another (the host).

People like me usually divide parasites (sensu stricto) into protozoa (single-celled) and helminths (multi-cellular; worms). Effectively, this should be protists and helminths, since not all single-celled parasitic eukaryotes are protozoa. Please note that most protists and helminths (the nematode fraction) are free-living, - but some have adapted a parasitic life style and very effectively so.

So, when we're told by doctors that we are in fact hosting parasites, - how do we react? I guess  some of us will be quite alarmed: Creatures eating defenseless hosts from within, castrating them and turning them into zombies come to our minds, for instance Sacculina, Dicrocoelium, and Leucochloridium, just to mention a few ones (if you're not familiar with these ones, I suggest you look them up - you will hardly believe what they are capable of doing, and despite the horrifying subtlety and cold-bloodedness with which these creatures operate, one can hardly help marveling on how cunningly evolution makes way for some organisms' ability to exploit others). Other parasites are known to cause less spectacular phenotypic changes while having huge consequences for human health and disease: Malaria continues to be a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in many larger regions, and recently, diarrhoea caused by species of Cryptospordium was recognised as one of the most significant health issues in infants and toddlers in select sentinel areas sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Some parasites, however, are commensals (ie. they just sit there with a more or less neutral outcome) or even beneficial to the host; for instance, there's evidence of ciliates assisting herbivores in metabolising cellulose. So while, these organisms from one point of view are parasites, the hole symbiotic relationship between these protozoa and herbivores may be seen as mutualistic. Maybe this particular relationship started out as 'parasitsm' but developed into 'mutualism'? There may be a lot more examples of this. Animals usually host various types of parasites, and humans probably used to host a much larger zoo of parasites than many of us do today; what is the public health significance of the recent and rapid 'defaunation' of humans in certain parts of the world?

At least technically, Blastocystis is also a parasite: Sitting in the colon, it lives on food delivered by its host, and thereby it certainly eats at someone else's table. Moreover, the parasite is probably not capable of completing its life cycle without a host. But what does it do apart from eating? Does it do us any good just like the ciliates in the herbivores? Blastocystis has co-evolved with humans (and other host species) and maybe humans have learned to exploit Blastocystis so that it's not only Blastocystis exploiting us? Does Blastocystis compete with other organisms in the gut? Does it secrete substances that impact other organisms including the host, and if so, in what way? What's its impact on the immune system? Etc.

I guess the take-home message here is that 'parasite' is just a word, - a name for something, and there are examples of parasitism turning into mutualism. Not all parasites induce disease, and parasites are not always organisms that should be sought eradicated.


Kotloff KL, Nataro JP, Blackwelder WC, Nasrin D, Farag TH, Panchalingam S, Wu Y, Sow SO, Sur D, Breiman RF, Faruque AS, Zaidi AK, Saha D, Alonso PL, Tamboura B, Sanogo D, Onwuchekwa U, Manna B, Ramamurthy T, Kanungo S, Ochieng JB, Omore R, Oundo JO, Hossain A, Das SK, Ahmed S, Qureshi S, Quadri F, Adegbola RA, Antonio M, Hossain MJ, Akinsola A, Mandomando I, Nhampossa T, Acácio S, Biswas K, O'Reilly CE, Mintz ED, Berkeley LY, Muhsen K, Sommerfelt H, Robins-Browne RM, & Levine MM (2013). Burden and aetiology of diarrhoeal disease in infants and young children in developing countries (the Global Enteric Multicenter Study, GEMS): a prospective, case-control study. Lancet, 382 (9888), 209-22 PMID: 23680352

Veira DM (1986). The role of ciliate protozoa in nutrition of the ruminant. Journal of Animal Science, 63 (5), 1547-60 PMID: 3098727

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Blastocystis aux Enfers

We tremble at the thought of being devoured by a ferocious animal, - of ending our days in a narrow, suffocating slimy tube covered in acidic, nauseating glaze! Remarkably, for some eukaryotic beings, this is the only way forward if they want to carry on with their lives! Intestinal protists such as Blastocystis are in a state of hibernation when outside our bodies and the only thing that may rouse these Sleeping Beauties to action is the passage through low pH enzyme ponds. They thrive, grow and raise their progeny only in the swampy Tartarus of our large intestines; they bequeath to their offspring the affinity for this gloomy, filthy slew; this murky, densely populated, polluted channel, and when the pool of poo becomes all too arid, they know it’s time to buckle up, shut down, and prepare themselves for the great unknown which can potentially mean death to them if eventually they are not lucky enough to be gulped down by another suitable host.

And yet, despite their remarkable modesty and humble requirements these little buggers are being bullied by their inhospitable human hosts; we’d throw anything at them to force them out, organic and inorganic compounds meant to arrest or even kill them. But the whelps of Blastocystis appear extremely resilient, which may hold the key to part of their success; they stay afloat on the Styx of our bowels. In order to eschew Flagyl, perhaps they bribed Phlegyas?

I think it's sometimes useful to put things into a completely different perspective. In any event, from an evolutionary biology standpoint it is highly interesting that a genus which is genetically related to water molds such as those causing potato blight and sudden oak death, has so successfully adapted to a parasitic, anaerobic life style, capable of protractedly colonising a plethora of very diverse host species including members of primates, other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and arthropods and thereby evading innate and adaptive immune defenses from such a diverse range of hosts. One could be inclined to say: Well done! But which is it? Parasitism? Commensalism? Mutalism? Symbiosis? And what will happen to Blastocystis in the future? Will this successful crusader eventually succumb to our avid but maybe imprudent war strategies? And if so, what will happen to us after removing such a common player from our intestinal ecosystems?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Micro-Eukaryotic Diversity in The Human Intestine

While we’re currently being flooded by papers on the intestinal microbiome, we still have very few dealing with the intestinal “micro-eukaryome” (forgive me my "badomics", I should have known better after reading this piece by Dr Eisen).

Hamad et al., just published their work on “Molecular Detection of Eukaryotes in a Single Human Stool Sample from Senegal” in PLoS One. They used a panel of 22 broad-specificity eukaryotic primers on genomic DNA extracted directly from faeces, cloned PCR products and did a blast search of the resulting sequences. They found about 18 micro-eukaryotic species in this particular faecal sample, most of which were fungi, and only two of which were “parasites”, namely Blastocystis sp. (subtype not given) and Entamoeba hartmanni, a so-called non-pathogenic amoebic species.They used both culture and culture-independent methods (PCR directly on genomic DNA from faeces) for the detection of intestinal fungi.

The study is interesting for a number of reasons:

1) It is one of the few papers out there on micro-eukaryotic diversity in faecal samples (other ones are listed in the reading list below), and we still know very little about micro-eukaryotes' potential interaction with the host and their ecological niche.

2) Many fungal species were detected by cloning of PCR products obtained by various primer pairs. It is possible that many of these are fungi stemming from the environment and diet, and not actually fungi colonizing the intestinal tract of this person; indeed the primers were able to pick up eukaryotic DNA such as that from tomatoes and common hop, stemming from the person’s diet. This is also one of the draw-backs of studies of fungi in stool samples: Even for mycologists it may prove difficult to determine which fungi are likely to be colonisers rather than fungi in transit due to environmental exposure, including diet. Analysis of consecutive samples from the same individual(s) (similar to the approach by Scanlan and Marchesi (2008)) will assist in identifying which fungi are stable and probable colonisiers. Similar to other studies, the investigators highlight the disparate findings resulting from the use of culture-dependent and culture-independent analyses; culture may be a way of identifying which ones of the many fungi detected by PCR that are actual colonisers.

3) We still don’t know much about what to expect when we take an approach like this. In the present study, multiple primer pairs were put into use, and 11 primer pairs yielded PCR products. The primer pairs amplified products of different lengths (some of them covering the complete SSU rDNA (18S)), and large products can sometimes be difficult to amplify and/or sequence for a variety of reasons; also preferential amplification may be a limiting factor. What would sometimes be useful is an in-silico analysis of the spectrum of organisms covered – at least theoretically - by each set of primers. In the papers I’ve seen so far aiming to display the eukaryotic diversity in human stool, Blastocystis has been a consistent finding, while Dientamoeba fragilis, which, at least in Denmark is almost as prevalent as Blastocystis (in some cohorts even more prevalent) and can be seen in co-infection, has not been reported so far. When you are presented with a list like the one presented by Hamad et al., you are inclined to believe that this list is exhaustive, but I think in-silico analysis data on such broad-specificity primers used for the detection of eukaryotic DNA would help us validate the use of these primers. Another approach to test the applicability of this methodology is to construct samples of DNA from known organisms in different ratios... and then test how the primers and cloning perform. What is also important is the very method of DNA extraction... obviously, our ability to detect DNA from any organism relies on our ability to extract DNA from it.

4) The study of micro-eukaryotes and their roles in health and disease includes first and foremost knowledge about which species and lineages that can be found and which ones that are the most common. Molecular methods are needed to identify the organisms in our intestine, since for instance parasites that look the same (morphological identity) can be genetically diverse with differing abilities to cause disease. We know from studies of micro-eukaryotes in ruminants that for instance some ciliates can be directly beneficial to the host, while others - such as cryptosporidia - are virtually obligate pathogens causing watery diarrhoea. Moreover, some organisms, including micro-eukaryotes, may be extremely difficult to culture even short-term, and also microscopy has limitations.

While we are still searching for virulence genes and other effector proteins in common micro-eukaryotes such as Blastocystis and Dientamoeba fragilis which could potentially cause disease directly, we also need to look for more indirect effects. Although much lower in numbers than our bacteria, (some) micro-eukaryotes may predate on beneficial bacteria to an extent where dysbiosis is reached. "Defaunation" of the intestine is speculated to be associated not only with impaired absorption of nutrients, but also with the development of severe disesases such as colon cancer and if micro-eukaryotes are able to skew our flora, this may have indirect impact on our health; many of our commensal bacteria are essential to some of our vital body functions, - indeed our intestinal flora can be viewed as a separate organ (see previous blog posts).

In the era of "omics" and "ngs" tools, it is interessesting to see a paper on global microbiotic diversity using a "conventional" cloning and sequencing approach in 2012. It may be one of the last papers of its kind?

To sum up: it is clear that a healthy intestine may be populated by a variety of micro-eukaryotes and future studies of the structure and function of the intestinal microbiome including micro-eukaryotes will help us understand their role in health and disease.

Let me end this post by uploading an image depicting "A Tree of Eukaryotes" (including Blastocystis) from an excellent protist blog by a colleague - my rendition here is practically useless, but I hope it might tease you to go and look at it in detail on "Welcome to the Ocelloid" by Psi Wavefunction.

Further reading:

Hamad I, Sokhna C, Raoult D, & Bittar F (2012). Molecular detection of eukaryotes in a single human stool sample from senegal. PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22808282

Pandey PK, Siddharth J, Verma P, Bavdekar A, Patole MS, & Shouche YS (2012). Molecular typing of fecal eukaryotic microbiota of human infants and their respective mothers. Journal of biosciences, 37 (2), 221-6 PMID: 22581327

Scanlan PD, & Marchesi JR (2008). Micro-eukaryotic diversity of the human distal gut microbiota: qualitative assessment using culture-dependent and -independent analysis of faeces. The ISME journal, 2 (12), 1183-93 PMID: 18670396

Friday, June 22, 2012

More Bits And Pieces On The Microbiome... Or Maybe Mycobiome...

I promised to include some more stuff from some of the many recent publications in Science and Science Translational Medicine on the intestinal microbiome and its potential role in health and disease, and I've chosen two papers that could have broad public interest; for those who need an introduction to the microbiome, please go here (Wikipedia entry).

Because the microbiome has been more or less exclusively synonymous with the "bacteriome" it's very refreshing to discover a paper on fungal diversity in the gut. Like Blastocystis, and other single-celled parasites, intestinal fungi are also micro-eukaryotes, and we are continuously searching for the role of micro-eukaryotes in health and disease.

In general, very little is known about fungi in the intestine, and most clinicians, even mycologists, hardly bother about the fungi that may be present in our intestine, - I think I can say that without offending anyone! Maybe one of the most interesting things in a clinical respect is the fact that antibodies against the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (see below) is a common finding in patients with Crohn's Disease, but relatively uncommon in patients with ulcerative colitis and healthy individuals.

Now, Iliev et al. (2012) start out by confirming the fact that fungi are indeed common commensals and thus a part of our normal intestinal flora. They then showed that colitis chemically induced in mice led to circulating antibodies against S. cerevisiae, which suggested that fungal antigens commonly found in the gut might be responsible for the induction of these antifungal antibodies during colitis.
The innate immune receptor Dectin-1 appears to have a key role in fungal recognition and combating. Therefore the authors wanted to further explore the role of this receptor by studying mice with and without Dectin-1. They found that Dectin-1 deficiency led to increased susceptibility to chemically induced colitis, including weight loss, tissue destruction and cell infiltration by inflammatory cells, etc. Moreoever, evidence was found of fungal invasion of inflamed tissue in the Dectin-1 knockout mice and taken together, their data suggest that Dectin-1 deficiency leads to altered immunity to commensal gut fungi.
To cut a long story short, results from these experiments in mice led the investigators to search for mutations in CLEC1A (the human Dectin-1 gene) in patients with ulcerative colitis, and they found that mutations were significantly more common in patients with severe ulcerative colitis (patients requiring colectomy) than in those with a less aggressive disease progression. This suggests that not only bacteria but also intestinal fungi interact with the intestinal immune system and may thereby influence health and disease. If this can be confirmed by others, this is an example of how biomarkers can predict the disposition towards/progression of disease and the results may have profound consequences for diagnostic strategies (e.g. screening for mutations in the Dectin-1 gene) and therapeutic management of patients with severe ulcerative colitis. Maybe it would have been interesting to know about such mutations in patients with Crohn's Disease as well...

Next, the investigators took to identifying what types of fungi were actually present in the colon of these mice. What may be a little bit controversial is the fact that the authors - by amplification and deep sequencing of  ITS1-2 (genetic marker commonly used to identify and taxonomically group fungi) - appear to have found not only species representing a staggering 50 well-annotated fungal genera in the mouse microbiome, but an additional 100 "novel and/or un-annotated fungi" as well - this does sound like a lot, but somehow the reader is calmed down a bit, when the authors later tell us that 97.3% of all fungi detected in the mouse faeces belonged to only 10 species, with 65.2% of the fungal sequences belonging to Candida tropicalis. So, whether the 100 novel fungi are indeed fungi colonising the intestinal tract is unknown, but they may very well represent fungi "on transit", so to say, acquired from food, drink or environment maybe... we know that fungi are ubiquitous - we inhale fungi every day for instance, and when deep sequencing is applied, it may be possible to trace even fungi only present in very small quantities; also ITS-2 analysis does not tell us whether the sequences are from "intact/live" (i.e. colonising) fungi or from degraded fungi (i.e. ingested); a classic example is Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Brewer's or Baker's yeast), which we may often acquire from food and drink, but which may also colonise (settle and proliferate) our intestines. Contamination of the faecal samples from fungi present in the environment and during processing is also a possibility (one of the reasons why PCR-based diagnostics for fungal infections is a tricky task...). Well so, all of these new species/genera may not necessarily represent the "mouse mycobiome". However, the authors found only few of the fungi in the food that was fed to the mice, so this still may remain a bit of a mystery... it would have been interesting to know whether the fungi detected were yeasts or molds, for instance, and very little information can be extracted from the supplementary material (phylogenetic analysis) accompanying the paper. Anyway, it's all very stimulating and further studies will assist in exploring fungal diversity and, hopefully, the diversity of micro-eukaryotes in general.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae is used in food and drink, but may also colonise our guts.

The next paper is one of many recent papers heralding the implementation of microbiome-based therapies in future personalised and precision medicine, possibly relevant to diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and diabetes. Microbiome manipulation, so to say, is key to this concept and includes controlled diet, pre- and probiotic interventions, bariatric surgery (e.g. gastric bypass), faecal transplants (see my recent blog post on feacal bacteriotherapy), helminth therapy (yes!) or ecological engineering. Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host, and these may be known to many as lactobacilli or bifidobacteria (or simply "yoghurt"!) that protect us against harmful bacteria by inhibiting their growth and by helping reduce cholesterol levels, synthesise vitamins and sustain immune responses. Prebiotics are non-digestible dietary sugar molecules (oligosaccharides) that can enhance the activity of for instance lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. While the potential benefits of pre- and probitics have been known for many years, it is only with current available technology that we are starting to get a mechanistic understanding of their impact on our bodies.

The article picks up on host-gut microbiota metabolic interactions and the so-called "host-microbe metabolic axes", which include pathways and interactions responsible for gut permeability, formation of blood vessels (angiogenesis) in the gut mucosa, ion transports, sulfation ability of xenobiotics, and many other things; sulfation ability is a key component in metabolising of drugs, for instance. Differences in our individual abilities to sulfate certain compounds give us at least one explanation as to why different people may respond differently two drugs treatment (see previous posts), and our ability to metabolise a common drug such as acetaminophen (paracetamol) can apparently be predicted form our preinterventional excretion of the microbial co-metabolite 4-cresyl sulfate; other gut microbial contributions that can alter the absorption, metabolism, and safety of drugs have been demonstrated recently.

Gastric bypass (Roux-en-Y) is a surgical procedure carried out to delay and reduce the absorption of calories and includes bypassing a large part of the stomach and a part of the small intestine by a procedure known as "stapling". Roux-en-Y appears to be associated with major and stable changes in the microbiota and in many microbially generated compounds, all of which are key components in the host-microbe metabolic axes. "This suggests that the microbiota is an essential part of the "gearbox" that connects the physical effects of bariatric surgery to the resulting beneficial effects."

Gut ecology changes with age, and current investigations seek to define the rationale of and potential for manipulating the microbiome of older people, for instance with pre- and probiotics, to secure higher microbiome diversity (high microbiome diversity appears to be beneficial) and resilience to antibiotics-induced changes in gut flora.

For those of you who nearly choked on "helminth therapy" - I may put up a post in the future on how helminths (and maybe other intestinal eukaryotes such as amoebae?) apparently play a role in the presentation and regulation of diseases such as asthma and inflammatory bowel diseases...

The cells of our intestinal microbiome outnumber our own body cells by 10 to 1. Within the next decade or so we will be able to extract a lot of information about how the bacteria and other "bugs" in our guts influence and contribute to health and disease. Importantly, we may have to realise now more than ever that "germs and bugs" and their actions and interactions can hold the key to a healthy life in ways that we wouldn't think were possible only a few years ago. This means that we should acknowledge that some bacteria and parasites may be a sign of a healthy intestinal environment / a healthy gut function, and that consumption of drugs such as antibiotics may produce shifts in our microbiota that may not necessarily be beneficial.


Iliev ID, Funari VA, Taylor KD, Nguyen Q, Reyes CN, Strom SP, Brown J, Becker CA, Fleshner PR, Dubinsky M, Rotter JI, Wang HL, McGovern DP, Brown GD, & Underhill DM (2012). Interactions between commensal fungi and the C-type lectin receptor Dectin-1 influence colitis. Science (New York, N.Y.), 336 (6086), 1314-7 PMID: 22674328
Holmes E, Kinross J, Gibson GR, Burcelin R, Jia W, Pettersson S, & Nicholson JK (2012). Therapeutic modulation of microbiota-host metabolic interactions. Science translational medicine, 4 (137) PMID: 22674556

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Blastocystis and Microbiomology

Speaking of metagenomics: The July 2012 issue of one of the most prestigious journals in the field of clinical microbiology, Clinical Microbiology and Infection (CMI – published by European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases), focuses entirely on recent advances in metagenomics, including its implications on clinical microbiology. Several of the keynote speakers from the MetaHIT conference in Paris (March, 2012) have contributed with papers, including Rob Knight, Willem M. de Vos and Paul W. O’Toole. In his editorial, Didier Raoult, puts emphasis on mainly two things: 1) that we need to be patient with data obtained from studies using metagenomics, since currently some conclusions are pointing in different directions and data are still scarce, and 2) that metagenomic studies should be independent of financial support from commercial sources, such as the industry of antibiotics and probiotics.

Although it may be too early to make b/w inferences from data already published, I think that the pioneers in metagenomics teach us to re-think or at least modify several hypotheses about the role of intestinal microbes in gastrointestinal health and disease and pursue new and exciting trajectories. In this blog post I would like to highlight a few things that may be interesting to people who are not familiar with metagenomics, but who are interested in our gut flora and how it may impact our lives.

So, what is metagenomics? Well, only a few years ago, microbiologists were used to looking at one single organism at a time, when exploring the potential role of an organism in health and disease. They were dependent on isolating the organism, for instance by culture, in order to have sufficient material for molecular studies, and in order to avoid mix-up of data from contaminating organisms. However, the human intestinal microbiome (gut flora) is made up by a plethora of organisms, mainly prokaryotes (bacteria), but also to some extent eukaryotes (parasites and fungi), archaea and viruses. Metagenomics, facilitated by massive high-throughput parallel sequencing of nucleic acids extracted from human faecal samples, allows us to get a holistic picture of the entire gut flora of a person. I.e.: We move from examining one single species or organism at a time, to be analysing entire eco-systems. We get to know not only the composition of microbic species inhabiting our gut, but also how they impact our body physiology: Interestingly, Gosalbes et al. (2012) describe how the composition of the intestinal flora may differ significantly from person to person, but later shows that the active intestinal flora is fairly similar among healthy individuals. So, what’s the active flora? Briefly: while metagenomics analyses the DNA (16s rDNA) from the microbiome and hence provides us with data on the mere composition of microbes, including a quantification, metatranscriptomics looks at RNA communities by looking at 16S rRNA and mRNA transcripts. In this way, we get to know the function of the intestinal microbiota and can temporarily ignore the part of the microbial community that is in “stand-by” mode only. The collective genome of the intestinal microbes vastly surpasses the coding capacity of the human genome with more than 3 million genes - in comparison the human genome comprises 20,000-25,000 protein-coding genes.

So far, metagenomic studies have focused mainly on bacteria, and hence we know very little about how intestinal parasites directly or indirectly impact the remaining gut flora and the host, and, importantly, how the bacterial flora influences the presence and activity of parasites. This is due in part to methodological limitations, but mainly to the fact that the bacterial microbiome can be viewed as an organ of the human body (Baquero et al., 2012) taking care of vital and irreplaceable functions that the host is not otherwise capable of, ranging from energy and vitamin metabolism to epithelial barrier integrity and immune modulation (Salonen et al., 2012). Like any other organ, the microbiome has physiology and pathology, and the individual (and collective?) health might be damaged when its collective population structure is altered (Baquero et al, 2012). This is one of the reasons why studies of host-gut flora interactions have focused on bacteria.

One of the striking findings in metagenomic studies is that humans can be more or less successfully stratified into three enterotypes based on their intestinal flora (Arumugam et al., 2011):

We see that the three enterotypes are dominated by mainly three different types of bacteria (Bacteroides, Prevotelia and Ruminocoocus, respectively). However, as mentioned earlier, functional analysis (and probably a lot more sampling) is required to understand microbial communities. One of the interesting topics in this respect is how enterotypes correlate to different health/disease phenotypes; i.e. whether people with a certain gut flora are more prone to (a) certain type(s) of disease(s).There is preliminary evidence that variations in the microbiota are linked to diseases including bowel dysfunction and obesity.

In terms of parasites, I believe that in the near future we will see data revealing to which extent - if any - common intestinal micro-eukaryotes such as Blastocystis and Dientamoeba correlate with these enterotypes or other subsets of bacteria which will enable us to generate hypotheses on the interaction of micro-eukaryotes and the bacterial flora, which in turn may impact host physiology. I will expand a little more on this in an upcoming letter in Trends in Parasitology (article in press).

Interested in more: Why not have a look at Carl Zimmer's article in The New York Times about gut flora transplantation, or read about modulating the intestinal microbiota of older people to promote enhanced nutrition utilisation and to improve general health (O'Toole et al., 2012)... Also, have a look at my most recent blog post.


O’Toole, P. (2012). Changes in the intestinal microbiota from adulthood through to old age Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 18, 44-46 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-0691.2012.03867.x  

Gosalbes, M., Abellan, J., Durbán, A., Pérez-Cobas, A., Latorre, A., & Moya, A. (2012). Metagenomics of human microbiome: beyond 16s rDNA Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 18, 47-49 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-0691.2012.03865.x  

Baquero, F., & Nombela, C. (2012). The microbiome as a human organ Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 18, 2-4 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-0691.2012.03916.x  

Salonen, A., Salojärvi, J., Lahti, L., & de Vos, W. (2012). The adult intestinal core microbiota is determined by analysis depth and health status Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 18, 16-20 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-0691.2012.03855.x

Arumugam, M., Raes, J., Pelletier, E., Le Paslier, D., Yamada, T., Mende, D., Fernandes, G., Tap, J., Bruls, T., Batto, J., Bertalan, M., Borruel, N., Casellas, F., Fernandez, L., Gautier, L., Hansen, T., Hattori, M., Hayashi, T., Kleerebezem, M., Kurokawa, K., Leclerc, M., Levenez, F., Manichanh, C., Nielsen, H., Nielsen, T., Pons, N., Poulain, J., Qin, J., Sicheritz-Ponten, T., Tims, S., Torrents, D., Ugarte, E., Zoetendal, E., JunWang, ., Guarner, F., Pedersen, O., de Vos, W., Brunak, S., Doré, J., Consortium, M., Weissenbach, J., Ehrlich, S., & Bork, P. (2011). Enterotypes of the human gut microbiome Nature, 474 (7353), 666-666 DOI: 10.1038/nature10187