Episode 32: How microbes and mucus interact in the gut

How microbes and mucus interact in the gut, With Dr. Mindy Engevik PhD

How microbes and mucus interact in the gut, With Dr. Mindy Engevik PhD

Episode summary:

In this episode, the ISAPP hosts discuss mucus-microbe interactions in the digestive tract with Dr. Mindy Engevik PhD from the Medical University of South Carolina, USA. They discuss how mucus in the gut is produced and degraded, and different ways that pathogens and commensal microbes interact with the mucus layer. Dr. Engevik describes some different ways that commensal bacteria make use of mucus, as well as dietary influences on gut mucus production.

Key topics from this episode:

  • The gut epithelium has special cells called goblet cells that actively secrete mucus. In the small intestine, mucus forms a light barrier but in the colon, it forms a thicker barrier with two layers: an inner layer free of microbes, and an outer layer where mucus and microbes coexist.
  • Bacteria in the gut make use of mucus in different ways. Many microbes have the capacity to degrade mucus, and it can provide a carbon source for bacteria to survive. Even bacterial quorum sensing can be influenced by mucus.
  • Bifidobacteria increase mucus production. Akkermansia are good at degrading mucus and also increasing mucus production. Pathogens, however, degrade the mucus and cause inflammation so mucus production is suppressed.
  • Several human diseases involve a dysfunctional gut mucus layer – for example, inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Various models are used for studying mucus – for example, traditional cell lines and human intestinal organoids.
  • Dr. Engevik’s work has found interactions between Clostridioides difficile and Fusobacterium nucleatum in the gut: these bacteria can interact to form biofilms that are more antibiotic-resistant than normal.
  • Individual differences exist in gut microbes as well as glycan structure in the gut, so the best insights will likely come from understanding the entire network of microorganisms, metabolites, and mucus. 
  • Dietary components influence the gut microbiota, which influences mucus production in the gut. High dietary fiber increases the amount of mucus produced by the goblet cells. Some bacteria degrade dietary substrates, then switch over to mucus when they don’t get what they need from the diet.
  • Dr. Engvik is an avid science communicator and advocates for scientists being present on social media. She has found science communication a great way to engage with the public as well as fostering scientific collaborations. The Instagram account showing microscopy images from her lab is @the_engevik_labs

Episode links:

About Dr. Mindy Engevik PhD:

Mindy Engevik is an Assistant Professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. She has Ph.D. in Systems Biology & Physiology and an interest in microbe-epithelial interactions in the gastrointestinal tract. Her lab focuses on how commensal friendly bacteria in the human gut interact with intestinal mucus and she tries to leverage this information to treat intestinal disorders. You can follow her on Twitter at @micromindy.

Bacterial genes lead researchers to discover a new way that lactic acid bacteria can make energy and thrive in their environments

Lactic acid bacteria are an important group of bacteria associated with the human microbiome. Notably, they are also responsible for creating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir. In the past two decades, culture-independent techniques have allowed scientists to sequence the genomes of these bacteria and discover more about their capabilities.

Researchers studying a type of lactic acid bacteria called Lactiplantibacillus plantarum found something unexpected: they contained genes for making energy in a way that had not been previously documented. Generally, living organisms obtain energy from their surroundings either by fermentation or respiration. L. plantarum have long been understood to obtain energy using fermentation, but the new genetic analysis found they had additional genes that were suited to respiration. Could they be using both fermentation and respiration?

ISAPP board member Prof. Maria Marco is a leading expert on lactic acid bacteria and their role in fermented foods and in human health. In her lab at University of California Davis, she decided to investigate why L. plantarum had genes equipping it for respiration. Her group recently published findings that show a new type of “hybrid” metabolism used by these lactobacilli.

Here is a Q&A with Prof. Marco about these exciting new findings.

What indicated to you that some of the genes in L. plantarum didn’t ‘belong’?

Organisms that use respiration normally require an external molecule that can accept electrons, such as oxygen. Interestingly, some microorganisms can also use solid electron acceptors located outside the cell, such as iron. This ability, called extracellular electron transfer, has been linked to proteins encoded by specific genes. L. plantarum had these genes, even though this species is known to use fermentation. We first learned about their potential function from Dr. Sam Light, now at the University of Chicago. Sam discovered a related pathway in the foodborne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes. Sam came across our research on L. plantarum because we previously published a paper showing that a couple of genes in this pathway are switched on in the mammalian digestive tract. We wondered what the proteins encoded by these genes were doing.

How did you set out to investigate the metabolism of these bacteria?

We investigated this hybrid metabolism in a variety of ways. Using genetic and biochemical approaches we studied the extent to which L. plantarum and other lactic acid bacteria are able to use terminal electron acceptors like iron. Our collaborators at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Rice University contributed vital expertise with their electrochemistry experiments, including making fermented kale juice in a bioelectrochemical reactor.

What did you find out?

We discovered a previously unknown method of energy metabolism in Lactiplantibacillus plantarum. This hybrid strategy blends features of respiration (a high NAD+/NADH ratio and use of a respiratory protein) with features of fermentation (use of endogenous electron acceptors and substrate-level phosphorylation).

We verified that this hybrid metabolism happens in different laboratory media and in kale juice fermentations. We also found that, in the complex nutritive environment of a kale juice fermentation, this hybrid metabolism increases the rate and extent of fermentation and increases acidification. Within the ecological context of the fermented food, this could give L. plantarum a fitness advantage in outcompeting other microorganisms. This could potentially be used to change the flavor and texture of fermented foods.

This discovery gives us a new understanding of the physiology and ecology of lactic acid bacteria.

Are there any indications about whether this energy-making strategy is shared by other lactic acid bacteria?

Some other fermentative lactic acid bacteria also contain the same genetic pathway. It is likely that we are just at the tip of the iceberg learning about the extent of this hybrid metabolism in lactobacilli and related bacteria.

Your finding means there is electron transfer during lactic acid bacteria metabolism. What does this add to previous knowledge about bacterially-produced ‘electricity’?

Certain soil and aquatic microbes have been the focus of research on bacterially-produced electricity. We found that by giving L. plantarum the right nutritive environment, it can produce current to the same level as some of those microbes. We believe there is potential to apply the findings from our studies to better inform food fermentation processes and to guide fermentations to generate new or improved products. Because strains of L. plantarum and related bacteria are also used as probiotics, this information may also be useful for understanding their molecular mechanisms of action in the human digestive tract.

How might this knowledge be applied in practice?

Our findings can lead to new technologies which use lactic acid bacteria to produce healthier and tastier fermented foods and beverages. Because this hybrid metabolism leads to efficient fermentation and a larger yield, it could also help minimize food waste. We plan to continue studying the diversity, expression, and regulation of this hybrid metabolism in the environments in which these bacteria are found.