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digestive tract

The Hidden Beauty of Intestinal Villi

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Credit: Amy Engevik, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston.

The human small intestine, though modest in diameter and folded compactly to fit into the abdomen, is anything but small. It measures on average about 20 feet from end to end and plays a big role in the gastrointestinal tract, breaking down food and drink from the stomach to absorb the water and nutrients.

Also anything but small is the total surface area of the organ’s inner lining, where millions of U-shaped folds in the mucosal tissue triple the available space to absorb the water and nutrients that keep our bodies nourished. If these folds, packed with finger-like absorptive cells called villi, were flattened out, they would be the size of a tennis court!

That’s what makes this this microscopic image so interesting. It shows in cross section the symmetrical pattern of the villi (its cells outlined by yellow) that pack these folds. Each cell’s nucleus contains DNA (teal), and the villi themselves are fringed by thousands of tiny bristles, called microvilli (magenta), which are too small to see individually here. Collectively, microvilli make up an absorptive surface, called the brush border, where digested nutrients in the fluid passing through the intestine can enter cells via transport channels.

Amy Engevik, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, took this snapshot to show what a healthy intestinal cellular landscape looks like in a young mouse. The Engevik lab studies the dynamic movement of ions, water, and proteins in the intestine—a process that goes wrong in humans born with a rare disorder called microvillus inclusion disease (MVID).

MVID causes chronic gastrointestinal problems in newborn babies, due to defects in a protein that transports various cellular components. Because they cannot properly absorb nutrition from food, these tiny patients require intravenous feeding almost immediately, which carries a high risk for sepsis and intestinal injury.

Engevik and her team study this disease using a mouse model that replicates many of the characteristics of the disorder in humans [1]. Interestingly, when Engevik gets together with her family, she isn’t the only one talking about MVID and villi. Her two sisters, Mindy and Kristen, also study the basic science of gastrointestinal disorders! Instead of sibling rivalry, though, this close alliance has strengthened the quality of her research, says Amy, who is the middle child.

Beyond advancing science and nurturing sisterhood in science, Engevik’s work also captured the fancy of the judges for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s annual BioArt Scientific Image and Video Competition. Her image was one of 10 winners announced in December 2020.

Because multiple models are useful for understanding fundamentals of diseases like MVID, Engevik has also developed a large-animal model (pig) that has many features of the human disease [2]. She hopes that her efforts will help to improve our understanding of MVID and other digestive diseases, as well as lead to new, potentially life-saving treatments for babies suffering from MVID.


[1] Loss of MYO5B Leads to reductions in Na+ absorption with maintenance of CFTR-dependent Cl- secretion in enterocytes. Engevik AC, Kaji I, Engevik MA, Meyer AR, Weis VG, Goldstein A, Hess MW, Müller T, Koepsell H, Dudeja PK, Tyska M, Huber LA, Shub MD, Ameen N, Goldenring JR. Gastroenterology. 2018 Dec;155(6):1883-1897.e10.

[2] Editing myosin VB gene to create porcine model of microvillus inclusion disease, with microvillus-lined inclusions and alterations in sodium transporters. Engevik AC, Coutts AW, Kaji I, Rodriguez P, Ongaratto F, Saqui-Salces M, Medida RL, Meyer AR, Kolobova E, Engevik MA, Williams JA, Shub MD, Carlson DF, Melkamu T, Goldenring JR. Gastroenterology. 2020 Jun;158(8):2236-2249.e9.


Microvillus inclusion disease (Genetic and Rare Diseases Center/NIH)

Digestive Diseases (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Amy Engevik (Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston)

Podcast: A Tale of Three Sisters featuring Drs. Mindy, Amy, and Kristen Engevik (The Immunology Podcast, April 29, 2021)

BioArt Scientific Image and Video Competition (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Fundamental Knowledge of Microbes Shedding New Light on Human Health

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A laboratory researching the human microbiome
Caption: Human microbiome research requires teamwork. Kimberly Jefferson (second from left), a leader of the Multi-Omic Microbiome Study—Pregnancy Initiative, joins some of the team at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. Credit: Courtesy of Kimberly Jefferson

Basic research in biology generates fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems. It is generally impossible to predict exactly where this line of scientific inquiry might lead, but history shows that basic science almost always serves as the foundation for dramatic breakthroughs that advance human health. Indeed, many important medical advances can be traced back to basic research that, at least at the outset, had no clear link at all to human health.

One exciting example of NIH-supported basic research is the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), which began 12 years ago as a quest to use DNA sequencing to identify and characterize the diverse collection of microbes—including trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses—that live on and in the healthy human body.

The HMP researchers have subsequently been using those vast troves of fundamental data as a tool to explore how microbial communities interact with human cells to influence health and disease. Today, these explorers are reporting their latest findings in a landmark set of papers in the Nature family of journals. Among other things, these findings shed new light on the microbiome’s role in prediabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and preterm birth. The studies are part of the Integrative Human Microbiome Project.

If you’d like to keep up on the microbiome and other basic research journeys, here’s a good way to do so. Consider signing up for basic research updates from the NIH Director’s Blog and NIH Research Matters. Here’s how to do it: Go to Email Updates, type in your email address, and enter. That’s it. If you’d like to see other update possibilities, including clinical and translational research, hit the “Finish” button to access Subscriber Preferences.

As for the recent microbiome findings, let’s start with the prediabetes study [1]. An estimated 1 in 3 American adults has prediabetes, detected by the presence of higher than normal fasting blood glucose levels. If uncontrolled and untreated, prediabetes can lead to the more-severe type 2 diabetes (T2D) and its many potentially serious side effects [2].

George Weinstock, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, Farmington, CT, Michael Snyder, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and colleagues report that they have assembled a rich new data set covering the complex biology of prediabetes. That includes a comprehensive analysis of the human microbiome in prediabetes.

The data come from monitoring the health of 106 people with and without prediabetes for nearly four years. The researchers met with participants every three months, drawing blood, assessing the gut microbiome, and performing 51 laboratory tests. All this work generated millions of molecular and microbial measurements that provided a unique biological picture of prediabetes.

The picture showed specific interactions between cells and microbes that were different for people who are sensitive to insulin and those whose cells are resistant to it (as is true of many of those with prediabetes). The data also pointed to extensive changes in the microbiome during respiratory viral infections. Those changes showed clear differences in people with and without prediabetes. Some aspects of the immune response also appeared abnormal in people who were prediabetic.

As demonstrated in a landmark NIH study several years ago [2], people with prediabetes can do a lot to reduce their chances of developing T2D, such as exercising, eating healthy, and losing a modest amount of body weight. But this study offers some new leads to define the biological underpinnings of T2D in its earliest stages. These insights potentially point to high value targets for slowing or perhaps stopping the systemic changes that drive the transition from prediabetes to T2D.

The second study features the work of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Multi’omics Data team. It’s led by Ramnik Xavier and Curtis Huttenhower, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. [4]

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term for chronic inflammations of the body’s digestive tract, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These disorders are characterized by remissions and relapses, and the most severe flares can be life-threatening. Xavier, Huttenhower, and team followed 132 people with and without IBD for a year, collecting samples of their gut microbiomes every other week along with biopsies and blood samples for a total of nearly 3,000 samples.

By integrating DNA, RNA, protein, and metabolic analyses, they followed precisely which microbial species were present. They could also track which biochemical functions those microbes were capable of performing, and which functions they actually were performing over the course of the study.

These data now offer the most comprehensive view yet of functional imbalances associated with changes in the microbiome during IBD flares. These data also show how those imbalances may be altered when a person with IBD goes into remission. It’s also noteworthy that participants completed questionnaires on their diet. This dataset is the first to capture associations between diet and the gut microbiome in a relatively large group of people over time.

The evidence showed that the gut microbiomes of people with IBD were significantly less stable than the microbiomes of those without IBD. During IBD activity, the researchers observed increases in certain groups of microbes at the expense of others. Those changes in the microbiome also came with other telltale metabolic and biochemical disruptions along with shifts in the functioning of an individual’s immune system. The shifts, however, were not significantly associated with people taking medications or their social status.

By presenting this comprehensive, “multi-omic” view on the microbiome in IBD, the researchers were able to single out a variety of new host and microbial features that now warrant further study. For example, people with IBD had dramatically lower levels of an unclassified Subdoligranulum species of bacteria compared to people without the condition.

The third study features the work of The Vaginal Microbiome Consortium (VMC). The study represents a collaboration between Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, and Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS). The VMC study is led by Gregory Buck, Jennifer Fettweis, Jerome Strauss,and Kimberly Jefferson of Virginia Commonwealth and colleagues.

In this study, part of the Multi-Omic Microbiome Study: Pregnancy Initiative, the team followed up on previous research that suggested a potential link between the composition of the vaginal microbiome and the risk of preterm birth [5]. The team collected various samples from more than 1,500 pregnant women at multiple time points in their pregnancies. The researchers sequenced the complete microbiomes from the vaginal samples of 45 study participants, who gave birth prematurely and 90 case-matched controls who gave birth to full-term babies. Both cases and controls were primarily of African ancestry.

Those data reveal unique microbial signatures early in pregnancy in women who went on to experience a preterm birth. Specifically, women who delivered their babies earlier showed lower levels of Lactobacillus crispatus, a bacterium long associated with health in the female reproductive tract. Those women also had higher levels of several other microbes. The preterm birth-associated signatures also were associated with other inflammatory molecules.

The findings suggest a link between the vaginal microbiome and preterm birth, and raise the possibility that a microbiome test, conducted early in pregnancy, might help to predict a woman’s risk for preterm birth. Even more exciting, this might suggest a possible way to modify the vaginal microbiome to reduce the risk of prematurity in susceptible individuals.

Overall, these landmark HMP studies add to evidence that our microbial inhabitants have important implications for many aspects of our health. We are truly a “superorganism.” In terms of the implications for biomedicine, this is still just the beginning of what is sure to be a very exciting journey.


[1] Longitudinal multi-omics of host-microbe dynamics in prediabetes. Zhou W, Sailani MR, Contrepois K, Sodergren E, Weinstock GM, Snyder M, et. al. Nature. 2019 May 29.

[2] National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2017, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta, GA)

[3] Long-term effects of lifestyle intervention or metformin on diabetes development and microvascular complications over 15-year follow-up: the Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study. Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group.Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol.2015 Nov;3(11):866-875.

[4] Multi-omics of the gut microbial ecosystem in inflammatory bowel disease. Lloyd-Price J, Arze C. Ananthakrishnan AN, Vlamakis H, Xavier RJ, Huttenhower C, et. al. Nature. 2019 May 29.

[5] The vaginal microbiome and preterm birth. Fettweis JM, Serrano MG, Brooks, JP, Jefferson KK, Strauss JF, Buck GA, et al. Nature Med. 2019 May 29.


Insulin Resistance & Prediabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Crohn’s Disease (NIDDK/NIH)

Ulcerative colitis (NIDDK/NIH)

Preterm Labor and Birth: Condition Information (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/NIH)

Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (Seattle, WA)

NIH Integrative Human Microbiome Project

NIH Human Microbiome Project

NIH Support:

Prediabetes Study: Common Fund; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of Human Genome Research; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

Inflammatory Bowel Disease Study: Common Fund; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Human Genome Research; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

Preterm Birth Study: Common Fund; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development