Professor Hannah Wexler discusses her work with Bacteroides fragilis, an important commensal in the gut microbiome but also the most important clinical anaerobic pathogen
Bacteria within our gut microbiome play an essential role in maintaining our health-including breaking our food down so that we can metabolize it, priming immune systems and a myriad of other activities. However, if they escape to a new environment because of injury, surgery, or cancer, they can become very aggressive and dangerous. We have been investigating what mechanisms Bacteroides gut bacteria use to survive when they escape and how we can stop them.
Bacteroides fragilis has two main mechanisms that make this switch easier. They can easily incorporate genes, such as antimicrobial resistance genes, from other bacteria and can also turn their own genes “on” or “off” as needed. Combined, these traits allow these bacteria to exploit new nutrition pathways, protecting themselves from toxic substrates, and changing the molecules expressed on its surface. This ‘commensal chameleon’ is the perfect opportunistic pathogen. This has been the focus of our research for three decades. With the increased urgency to find alternatives for standard antimicrobial treatment that allows maintaining the healthy gut microbiome (and avoiding infections from predators like Clostridium difficile, understanding how Bacteroides function in health and disease has become an urgent medical problem.
Our commitment to Bacteroides research includes communicating our work, and related work on the gut microbiome, to the lay community. We are particularly eager to extend our message to medical professionals, to legal firms and to other firms that need a basic understanding of how research in gut molecular biology is conducted.