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J Nutr. 2004 Feb;134(2):465-72.

Molecular ecological analysis of the gastrointestinal microbiota: a review.

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  • 1Department of Animal Sciences, Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL 61801, USA.


The gastrointestinal (GI) microbiota of mammals is characterized by its high population density, wide diversity and complexity of interactions. While all major groups of microbes are represented, bacteria predominate. Importantly, bacterial cells outnumber animal (host) cells by a factor of ten and have a profound influence on nutritional, physiological and immunological processes in the host animal. Our knowledge of the molecular and cellular bases of host-microbe interactions is limited, though critically needed to determine if and how the GI microbiota contributes to various enteric disorders in humans and animals. Traditionally, GI bacteria have been studied via cultivation-based techniques, which are labor intensive and require previous knowledge of individual nutritional and growth requirements. Recently, findings from culture-based methods have been supplemented with molecular ecology techniques that are based on the 16S rRNA gene. These techniques enable characterization and quantification of the microbiota, while also providing a classification scheme to predict phylogenetic relationships. The choice of a particular molecular-based approach depends on the questions being addressed. Clone libraries can be sequenced to identify the composition of the microbiota, often to the species level. Microbial community structure can be analyzed via fingerprinting techniques, while dot blot hybridization or fluorescent in situ hybridization can measure abundance of particular taxa. Emerging approaches, such as those based on functional genes and their expression and the combined use of stable isotopes and biomarkers, are being developed and optimized to study metabolic activities of groups or individual organisms in situ. Here, a critical summary is provided of current molecular ecological approaches for studying the GI microbiota.

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