Creative Minds: The Human Gut Microbiome’s Top 100 Hits

Michael Fishbach

Michael Fishbach

Microbes that live in dirt often engage in their own deadly turf wars, producing a toxic mix of chemical compounds (also called “small molecules”) that can be a source of new antibiotics. When he started out in science more than a decade ago, Michael Fischbach studied these soil-dwelling microbes to look for genes involved in making these compounds.

Eventually, Fischbach, who is now at the University of California, San Francisco, came to a career-altering realization: maybe he didn’t need to dig in dirt! He hypothesized an even better way to improve human health might be found in the genes of the trillions of microorganisms that dwell in and on our bodies, known collectively as the human microbiome.

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Eczema Relief: Probiotic Lotion Shows Early Promise

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria

Caption: Scanning electron microscopic image of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (orange).
Credit: CDC/Jeff Hageman, MHS

Over the years, people suffering from eczema have slathered their skin with lotions containing everything from avocado oil to zinc oxide. So, what about a lotion that features bacteria as the active ingredient? That might seem like the last thing a person with a skin problem would want to do, but it’s actually a very real possibility, based on new findings that build upon the growing realization that many microbes living in and on the human body—our microbiome—are essential for good health. The idea behind such a bacterial lotion is that good bugs can displace bad bugs.

Eczema is a noncontagious inflammatory skin condition characterized by a dry, itchy rash. It most commonly affects the cheeks, arms, and legs. Previous studies have suggested that the balance of microbes present on people with eczema is different than on those with healthy skin [1]. One major difference is a proliferation of a bad type of bacteria, called Staphylococcus aureus.

Recently, an NIH-funded research team found that healthy human skin harbors beneficial strains of Staphylococcus bacteria with the power to keep Staph aureus in check. To see if there might be a way to restore this natural balance artificially, the researchers created a lotion containing the protective bacteria and tested it on the arms of volunteers who had eczema [2]. Just 24 hours after one dose of the lotion was applied, the researchers found the volunteers’ skin had greatly reduced levels of Staph aureus. While further study is needed to learn whether the treatment can improve skin health, the findings suggest that similar lotions might offer a new approach for treating eczema and other skin conditions. Think of it as a probiotic for the skin!

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Snapshots of Life: Portrait of a Bacterial Biofilm

Colony of Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Credit: Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter, Harvard Medical School, Boston

In nature, there is strength in numbers. Sometimes, those numbers also have their own unique beauty. That’s the story behind this image showing an intricate colony of millions of the single-celled bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common culprit in the more than 700,000 hospital-acquired infections estimated to occur annually in the United States. [1]. The bacteria have self-organized into a sticky, mat-like colony called a biofilm, which allows them to cooperate with each other, adapt to changes in their environment, and ensure their survival.

In this image, the Pseudomonas biofilm has grown in a laboratory dish to about the size of a dime. Together, the millions of independent bacterial cells have created a tough extracellular matrix of secreted proteins, polysaccharide sugars, and even DNA that holds the biofilm together, stained in red. The darkened areas at the center come from the bacteria’s natural pigments.

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Mouse Study Finds Microbe Might Protect against Food Poisoning

T mu in a mouse colon

Caption: Scanning electron microscopy image of T. mu in the mouse colon.
Credit: Aleksey Chudnovskiy and Miriam Merad, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Recently, we humans have started to pay a lot more attention to the legions of bacteria that live on and in our bodies because of research that’s shown us the many important roles they play in everything from how we efficiently metabolize food to how well we fend off disease. And, as it turns out, bacteria may not be the only interior bugs with the power to influence our biology positively—a new study suggests that an entirely different kingdom of primarily single-celled microbes, called protists, may be in on the act.

In a study published in the journal Cell, an NIH-funded research team reports that it has identified a new protozoan, called Tritrichomonas musculis (T. mu), living inside the gut of laboratory mice. That sounds bad—but actually this little wriggler was potentially providing a positive benefit to the mice. Not only did T. mu appear to boost the animals’ immune systems, it spared them from the severe intestinal infection that typically occurs after eating food contaminated with toxic Salmonella bacteria. While it’s not yet clear if protists exist that can produce similar beneficial effects in humans, there is evidence that a close relative of T. mu frequently resides in the intestines of people around the world.

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Creative Minds: Making a Miniature Colon in the Lab

Gut on a Chip

Caption: Top down view of gut tissue monolayer grown on an engineered scaffold, which guides the cells into organized crypts structures similar to the conformation of crypts in the human colon. Areas between the circles represent the flat lumenal surface.
Credit: Nancy Allbritton, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

When Nancy Allbritton was a child in Marksville, LA, she designed and built her own rabbit hutches. She also once took apart an old TV set to investigate the cathode ray tube inside before turning the wooden frame that housed the TV into a bookcase, which, by the way, she still has. Allbritton’s natural curiosity for how things work later inspired her to earn advanced degrees in medicine, medical engineering, and medical physics, while also honing her skills in cell biology and analytical chemistry.

Now, Allbritton applies her wide-ranging research background to design cutting-edge technologies in her lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In one of her boldest challenges yet, supported by a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Allbritton and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators have set out to engineer a functional model of a large intestine, or colon, on a microfabricated chip about the size of a dime.

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