Some roommate frustration can be expected, whether it’s a sink piled high with crusty dishes or crumbs where a clean tabletop should be. Now, research suggests a less familiar issue: person-to-person transmission of shared bacterial strains in our gut and oral microbiomes. For the first time, the lab of Nicola Segata, a professor of genetics and computational biology at the University of Trento, located in Italy, has shown that bacteria of the microbiome are transmitted between many individuals, not just infants and their mothers, in ways that can’t be explained by their shared diet or geography.
It’s a finding with wide-ranging implications, yet frustratingly few predictable outcomes. Our microbiomes are an ever-growing and changing collection of helpful and harmful bacteria that we begin to accumulate the moment we’re born, but experts are still struggling to unravel why and how bacteria from one person’s gut or mouth become established in another person’s microbiome, as opposed to simply passing through.
“If we are looking at the overall species composition of the microbiome, then there is an effect of age of course, and many other factors,” Segata says. “But if we are looking at where our strains are coming from, 99 percent of them are only present in other people’s guts. They need to come from other guts.”
If we could better understand this process, we might be able to control and use it; perhaps hospital patients could avoid infections from other patients when their microbiome is depleted by antibiotics and their immune system is weakened, for example. But scientists are just beginning to link human microbiomes with various ailments. Growing evidence shows that our microbiomes steer our long-term health, impacting conditions like obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Previous work from Segata’s lab and others illuminated the ways bacteria are passed from mothers to infants during the first few months of life during vaginal birth, breastfeeding and other close contact. And scientists have long known that people in close proximity tend to share bacteria. But the factors related to that overlap, such as genetics and diet, were unclear, especially outside the mother-baby dyad.
“If we look at strain sharing between a mother and an infant at five years of age, for example, we cannot really tell which was due to transmission at birth and which is due to continued transmission because of contact,” Segata says. Experts hypothesized that they could be caused by bacterial similarities in the environment itself, genetics, or bacteria from shared foods that colonized the guts of people in close contact.
Strain sharing was highest in mother-child pairs, with 96 percent of them sharing strains, and only slightly lower in members of shared households, at 95 percent.
In Italy, researchers led by Mireia Valles-Colomer, including Segata, hoped to unravel this mystery. They compared data from 9,715 stool and saliva samples in 31 genomic datasets with existing metadata. Scientists zoomed in on variations in each bacterial strain down to the individual level. They examined not only mother-child pairs, but people living in the same household, adult twins, and people living in the same village in a level of detail that wasn’t possible before, due to its high cost and difficulties in retrieving data about interactions between individuals, Segata explained.
“This paper is, with high granularity, quantifying the percent sharing that you expect between different types of social interactions, controlling for things like genetics and diet,” Gibbons says. Strain sharing was highest in mother-child pairs, with 96 percent of them sharing strains, and only slightly lower in members of shared households, at 95 percent. And at least half of the mother-infant pairs shared 30 percent of their strains; the median was 12 percent among people in shared households. Yet, there was no sharing among eight percent of adult twins who lived separately, and 16 percent of people within villages who resided in different households. The results were published in Nature.
It’s not a regional phenomenon. Although the types of bacterial strains varied depending on whether people lived in western and eastern nations — datasets were drawn from 20 countries on five continents — the patterns of sharing were much the same. To establish these links, scientists focused on individual variations in shared bacterial strains, differences that create unique bacterial “fingerprints” in each person, while controlling for variables like diet, demonstrating that the bacteria had been transmitted between people and were not the result of environmental similarities.
The impact of this bacterial sharing isn’t clear, but shouldn’t be viewed with trepidation, according to Sean Gibbons, a microbiome scientist at the nonprofit Institute for Systems Biology.
“The vast majority of these bugs are actually either benign or beneficial to our health, and the fact that we're swapping and sharing them and that we can take someone else's strain and supplement or better diversify our own little garden is not necessarily a bad thing,” he says.
"There are hundreds of billions of dollars of investment capital moving into these microbiome therapeutic companies; bugs as drugs, so to speak,” says Sean Gibbons, a microbiome scientist at the Institute for Systems Biology.
Everyday habits like exercising and eating vegetables promote a healthy, balanced gut microbiome, which is linked to better metabolic and immune function, and fewer illnesses. While many people’s microbiomes contain bacteria like C. diff or E. coli, these bacteria don’t cause diseases in most cases because they’re present in low levels. But a microbiome that’s been wiped out by, say, antibiotics, may no longer keep these bacteria in check, allowing them to proliferate and make us sick.
“A big challenge in the microbiome field is being able to rationally predict whether, if you're exposed to a particular bug, it will stick in the context of your specific microbiome,” Gibbons says.
Gibbons predicts that explorations of microbe-based therapeutics will be “exploding” in the coming decades. “There are hundreds of billions of dollars of investment capital moving into these microbiome therapeutic companies; bugs as drugs, so to speak,” he says. Rather than taking a mass-marketed probiotic, a precise understanding of an individual’s microbiome could help target the introduction of just the right bacteria at just the right time to prevent or treat a particular illness.
Because the current study did not differentiate between different types of contact or relationships among household members sharing bacterial strains or determine the direction of transmission, Segata says his current project is examining children in daycare settings and tracking their microbiomes over time to understand the role genetics and everyday interactions play in the level of transmission that occurs.
This relatively newfound ability to trace bacterial variants to minute levels has unlocked the chance for scientists to untangle when and how bacteria leap from one microbiome to another. As researchers come to better understand the factors that permit a strain to establish itself within a microbiome, they could uncover new strategies to control these microbes, harnessing the makeup of each microbiome to help people to resist life-altering medical conditions.