The first few years of a child’s life are crucial to the development of their microbiome, or the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the body, mostly in the digestive system. Scientists are just beginning to understand the profound influence these bacteria have on human health, so the types of microbes children are exposed to at an early age could have important downstream effects on their health.
When babies are born prematurely, the subsequent weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit disrupts the normal development of their microbiome. They are given heavy doses of antibiotics to prevent infection, and separated from their parents and other sources of healthy bacteria.
Scientists have suspected that this initial disruption is linked to health problems down the road—things like autism, asthma, food allergies and autoimmune diseases—but so far they only have circumstantial evidence based on case studies.
To further understand the link between those fragile first few weeks of life and the downstream consequences on their health, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $2.7 million grant to a team from the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of South Florida (USF) to study the gut microbiomes of premature infants.
Jack Gilbert, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at UChicago and the group leader for Microbial Ecology at Argonne, will lead the microbial analysis for the project. Maureen Groer, PhD, from the USF College of Nursing, will lead a team collecting samples and developing immunological profiles of children and family members for the study.
“We have a fantastic opportunity here to understand how bacteria colonize us when we’re very young, how they influence the health of children who are in this very vulnerable position and whether that initial colonization event actually influences the health of kids later in life,” Gilbert said.
For this project, Gilbert and his team will analyze stool samples collected from 100 preterm infants for a previous NIH-funded study led by Groer at USF. Her team will continue to track these children until age 4, collecting more samples from them, their parents, and healthy siblings.
Gilbert’s team will add these new samples to their initial analysis to build a clearer picture of the how the microbiome of premature infants differs from those of their healthy relatives. Their plan is to then build a model that plots the course of microbiome development through early childhood, in order to truly understand how that world of microbes living in the gut affects the health of children born prematurely.
“We’ll be building this data set up into a really powerful statistical analysis of how that initial founding effect of those microbes really leads to—or prevents—health consequences later in life,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert notes that building a comprehensive model of all these microbes is just a first step, but its implications as a foundation for treatment are exciting.
“If we are able to identify which microbes colonize a healthy child, then maybe we can develop a probiotic to colonize infants with that same microbiome early in life to help them prevent disease or improve their quality of life,” he said. “We’re nowhere near that stage yet, but you can imagine the ability to fundamentally change health outcomes if we can use this data about what microbes colonize us early in life.”