60-Second Science

Good Gut Bacteria May Keep Bad at Bay

Mice given a healthy colony of human gut bacteria were able to ward off infections by pathogen E. coli bacteria. Christopher Intagliata reports

Most E. coli bacteria are harmless. It’s the rare, pathogenic strains that can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney disease, or death. But many of us may already be carrying the antidote—a healthy colony of gut bacteria. Because a study finds that when bad E. coli get in, beneficial microbes appear to keep them at bay. In mice, at least.

Researchers raised rodents in a sterile environment—meaning the animals are bacteria-free. Then some were inoculated with a probiotic cocktail of human gut bacteria. After that they all got a dose of pathogenic E. coli—the strain behind last year's spinach outbreak. The mice who got the preemptive probiotics never got sick. Their gut bacteria appeared to whisk away the toxins produced by E. coli.

Their probiotic-free counterparts were less lucky. Within a week of being infected with the pathogen they got kidney disease. The researchers presented those findings at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, in Denver. [Kathryn A. Eaton et al., Role of the Intestinal Microbiota in Disease Due to Enterohemorrhagic E. coli in Germ Free Mice]

So it’s possible antibiotics could be joined by probiotics as future treatments for bacterial infections. And that you may already be enlisting gut bacteria to fight off E. coli infections. Call it a gut feeling.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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