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Can J Gastroenterol. 2004 Aug;18(8):493-500.

Bacterial colonization and the development of intestinal defences.

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Mucosal Immunology Laboratory, Combined Program in Pediatric Gatroenterology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Charlestown, Massachusetts 02129, USA.


In humans, intestinal defences develop during gestation and, at full term, have the capacity to respond in an appropriate manner to infectious agents and foreign antigens. Before an active protective response can occur, however, the gut must first be exposed to colonizing bacteria. Colonization with diverse intestinal microbes is necessary for the development of important gut defenses such as the synthesis and secretion of polymeric immunoglobulin A and the generation of a balanced T helper (Th) cell response. Insights into normal immune physiological development of the gut have been made by studying the germ-free animal and intestinal defenses. These studies have provided insights into the physiology of immune responses. Two important immunological functions are the secretion of polymeric immunoglobulin A to protect the intestinal surface against harmful stimuli and inhibition of the systemic response to commensal bacteria and food proteins (eg, oral tolerance) to prevent chronic inflammation. Neither function exists in the germ-free state, but rapidly develops after conventionalization (colonization) of the germ-free animal. In the present review, the importance of bacterial colonization on the appearance of normal mucosal immune function and to the clinical consequences of inadequate colonization to the development of disease will be discussed. For example, excessive Th2 activity can lead to atopy, whereas Th1 predominance is found in conditions such as Helicobacter pylori gastritis and Crohn's disease. With the eradication of infectious diseases in developed countries in the past three decades, the incidence of atopic and autoimmune diseases has increased. This epidemiological observation has been explained by the 'hygiene hypothesis', which suggests that a reduction in microbial burden by public health measures has contributed to an immunological imbalance in the intestine. A family of pattern recognition receptors (Toll-like receptors) on gut lymphoid and epithelial cells mediates innate immune responses to bacterial molecular patterns and, thereby, orchestrates acquired immunity. As the role of bacterial communication within the gut (bacterial-epithelial cross-talk) is clarified, physicians should be able to modulate gut immune responses, for example, by the use of probiotics.

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