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Clin Exp Immunol. 2018 Nov;194(2):153-165. doi: 10.1111/cei.13195. Epub 2018 Sep 17.

Antigenic mimicry of ubiquitin by the gut bacterium Bacteroides fragilis: a potential link with autoimmune disease.

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School School of Biological Sciences, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, UK.
Regional Immunology Laboratory, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Belfast, UK.
The Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, UK.
School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.


Ubiquitin is highly conserved across eukaryotes and is essential for normal eukaryotic cell function. The bacterium Bacteroides fragilis is a member of the normal human gut microbiota, and the only bacterium known to encode a homologue of eukaryotic ubiquitin. The B. fragilis gene sequence indicates a past horizontal gene transfer event from a eukaryotic source. It encodes a protein (BfUbb) with 63% identity to human ubiquitin which is exported from the bacterial cell. The aim of this study was (i) to determine if there was antigenic cross-reactivity between B. fragilis ubiquitin and human ubiquitin and (ii) to determine if humans produced antibodies to BfUbb. Molecular model comparisons of BfUbb and human ubiquitin predicted a high level (99·8% confidence) of structural similarity. Linear epitope mapping identified epitopes in BfUbb and human ubiquitin that cross-react. BfUbb also has epitope(s) that do not cross-react with human ubiquitin. The reaction of human serum (n = 474) to BfUbb and human ubiquitin from the following four groups of subjects was compared by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA): (1) newly autoantibody-positive patients, (2) allergen-specific immunoglobulin (Ig)E-negative patients, (3) ulcerative colitis patients and (4) healthy volunteers. We show that the immune system of some individuals has been exposed to BfUbb which has resulted in the generation of IgG antibodies. Serum from patients referred for first-time testing to an immunology laboratory for autoimmune disease are more likely to have a high level of antibodies to BfUbb than healthy volunteers. Molecular mimicry of human ubiquitin by BfUbb could be a trigger for autoimmune disease.


Bacteroides fragilis ; Coeliac; autoimmune disease; microbiome; multiple sclerosis; rheumatoid arthritis; ubiquitin; ulcerative colitis

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