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Improving the immune system using ‘chatty’ bacteria

Certain helpful bacteria are able to communicate with cells lining the gut causing the production of chemicals that can kill off harmful microbes when they try to invade, scientists heard today (Wednesday 10 April 2002) at the spring meeting of the Society for General Microbiology at the University of Warwick.

"We have used various genetic and biochemical tests to see which intestinal genes are activated or repressed by the presence of bacteria. The normal gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron increases intestinal production of a protein that is toxic to some bacteria," says Dr Lora Hooper of Washington School of Medicine, USA.

Dr Hooper explains, "We study the interaction of bacteria with the intestine by looking at mice who have been raised under sterile conditions so that they are completely free from bacteria. We then add B. thetaiotaomicron back on its own so that we can listen to the communication between the microbe and the human gut cells."

The intestine is home to over 1kg in weight of bacteria. These microbes perform vital roles in vitamin production; digestion and absorption of nutrients; and helping to educate and shape our immune system.

"Scientists are looking for different ways to fight infections due to the growing number of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Our research shows that it may be possible to improve a person’s resistance to certain infections just by increasing the numbers of certain beneficial microbes," says Dr Hooper.

Society for General Microbiology. April 02, 2002.

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