3D structures of gut bacteria and the human immune system

When I talk to people about my work I sometimes get the question, “Do you really think that the microbiome has a direct effect on human health?” It’s a completely understandable question – the study-of-the-week which makes it into the news cycle tends to just confirm what we already know about the importance of diet and exercise. Then I come across these beautiful papers that show just how intimately connected we are with our gut bacteria. Here’s a good example, and it even comes with a video.

Ladinsky, M.S., et al. Endocytosis of commensal antigens by intestinal epithelial cells regulates mucosal T cell homeostasis. Science. 363(6431). DOI: 10.1126/science.aat4042.

There are some beautiful illustrations and graphics in this paper which I won’t reproduce here, but which I hope you can access from whichever side of the paywall you are on.

Background: Researchers are continuing to find evidence that the type of bacteria in your gut (if you are a mouse or a human) influences the type of your immune response. If you don’t study the immune system, just remember that the immune system responds in different ways to different kinds of pathogens – viruses are different from bacteria, which are different from parasites, etc. Mounting the correct type of response is essential, and it seems that which bacteria you have in your gut has some influence over the nature of those responses.

The Gist: This study focused on the how of the question, the specific molecular mechanism which would explain this observed relationship between bacteria and the immune system. They used one particular type of bacteria (segmented filamentous bacteria, or “SFB”) and showed that this bacteria gets so close to human cells that bacterial proteins are actually taken up and can be found inside the human cells. In addition, this movement of bacterial proteins inside human cells causes a shift in the type of response mounted by the immune system.

What Caught My Eye: This paper has a video showing a protrusion of a bacterial cell pushing deep into a human cell, complete with a 3D reconstruction of the physical structure using electron tomography. If you can follow the link above and make it to the video, I highly recommend taking a look.

The biggest story for me in the microbiome these days is that there are a number of great researchers who are starting to figure out some of the specific molecular mechanisms by which the microbiome may influence human health. This makes me more and more optimistic and excited that we will see a day where microbiome-based therapeutics make it into the clinic, which could have a profound impact on a broad range of diseases, from inflammatory bowel disease to colorectal cancer and auto-inflammatory disease. It is exciting to be a part of this effort and try to help as we bring that day closer.