Over the past decade, the gut microbiome has gained significant interest by scientists and non-scientists alike. Recent research has shown that the bacteria and other microbes in our gut play a supporting role in immunity, metabolism, digestion, and the fight against “bad bacteria” that try to invade our bodies. However, new research has revealed that the microbiome may not always be protective against human pathogens.
This research, published in Nature Biotechnology by Dr Angela Wahl, Dr Balfour Sartor, and UNC School of Medicine colleagues, used a first-of-its-kind precision animal model with no microbiome (germ-free) and showed that the microbiome has a significant impact on the acquisition of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV) infection and plays a role in the course of disease.
This research was conducted through a collaboration with scientists at the UNC International Center for the Advancement of Translational Science and the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the UNC School of Medicine.
The researchers will now try to pinpoint the factors that determine whether the microbiome plays a role in the persistence of HIV and EBV infections throughout the body and figure out if the microbiome also affects other human-specific pathogens. More specifically, the researchers will try to understand how the microbiome is contributing to HIV and EBV infections. They also want to identify which specific microbial strains are aiding in the viruses’ capacity to replicate and cause disease and, of particular importance, which ones are protecting the host from the viruses.
“These findings offer the first direct evidence that resident microbiota can have a significant impact on the establishment and pathology of infection by two different human-specific pathogens,” said Dr Wahl, Assistant Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UNC Department of Medicine.
“These findings open up a whole new door,” said Sartor, who also directs the National Gnotobiotic Rodent Resource Center that derived the germ-free mice. “Would it be possible to alter the gut microbiota, by decreasing the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that might increase expansion of the HIV infection? Or conversely, we could help patients build up microbes that would prevent that expansion and can work synergistically with antivirals to clear the HIV.”