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Research: Gut bacteria feed off our gut to infect us

Several types of gut bacteria. © Mougous Lab

The bacteria that live in our gut feed on the dead cells of the gut itself, and then go on to infect us, according to research by the university of Ghent and the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology.

These days, much attention is being paid to gut health – the word basically being used to refer to the small and large intestines – with dietary trends and new or imported products like kefir or nutritional yeast, reputed to improve gut health.

But according to the VIB-UGent research, gut bacteria that make up part of our natural gut biome – the sum total of the organisms that live in our intestines – are using fuel from our bodies to give them the strength to infect us.

It is already known that dying cells in the gut send out a signal that informs healthy cells in the vicinity. The question is, what is to stop unfriendly cells from picking up those same signals.

“We’ve known for decades that cell death can indirectly influence bacterial infections by altering the body’s immune response,” said Professor Kodi Ravichandran of the VIB and UGent’s Centre for Inflammation Research. “In our lab, we also study how dying cells communicate with their neighbours. In this study, we establish a link between both focus fields,” he said.

From research on healthy mice, the team found that dying cells in the inner lining of the intestine – known as the intestinal epithelium – emit a molecular signal as they die. And that signal can be detected by bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.

This so-called ‘death-induced nutrient release’ (DINNR) could be at the heart of a number of conditions, including food poisoning, inflammatory diseases such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease or mucositis, an infection of the mucous membranes that is one of the main side-effects of chemotherapy in cancer cases.

The results of the research could point the way to new types of therapy in the treatment of intestinal complaints.

The research, carried out in conjunction with the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville and the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York, is published in the journal Nature.