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Symbiotic microbes induce profound genetic changes in their hosts
Date:7/28/2008

MADISON Though bacteria are everywhere from the air we breathe and the food we eat to our guts and skin the vast majority are innocuous or even beneficial, and only a handful pose any threat to us. What distinguishes a welcome microbial guest from an unwanted intruder?

Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests the answer lies not with the bacteria, but with the host.

A study appearing online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may help reveal what sets a platonic relationship apart from a pathogenic one. In the paper, researchers from the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the University of Iowa identify a slew of microbe-induced genetic changes in a tiny squid, including a set of evolutionarily conserved genes that may hold the secrets to developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

"Interactions of animals with their microbiota have a profound impact on their gene expression, and to create a stable association with a microorganism requires a lot of conversation between the microbe and the host," says UW-Madison medical microbiologist Margaret McFall-Ngai, senior author of the new study.

Many studies have focused on the bacterial side of that conversation. But aside from a few "professional pathogens," like the bubonic plague-causing Yersinia pestis, most bacteria are not inherently good or bad, McFall-Ngai says. Instead, bacterial effects are highly context-dependent: She reported in 2004 that a common bacterial "toxin" which causes tissue damage under some circumstances also plays a critical role in host tissue development.

She now suggests that the outcome may rely on how the host itself responds to the bacterium. Problems most often arise when a normal balance is disrupted, she says. "A lot of these pathogens are just at the wrong place at the wrong time."

To listen into the animal-microbe conversation, McFall-Ngai takes adv
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Contact: Margaret McFall-Ngai
mjmcfallngai@wisc.edu
608-262-2393
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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