Vaginal microbiota and its role in HIV transmission and infection


Correspondence: Sarah Lebeer, KU Leuven, Centre of Microbial and Plant Genetics, Kasteelpark Arenberg 20, Box 2460, B-3001 Leuven, Belgium. Tel.: +32 16 321631; fax: +32 16 321966; e-mails:;


The urogenital tract appears to be the only niche of the human body that shows clear differences in microbiota between men and women. The female reproductive tract has special features in terms of immunological organization, an epithelial barrier, microbiota, and influence by sex hormones such as estrogen. While the upper genital tract is regarded as free of microorganisms, the vagina is colonized by bacteria dominated by Lactobacillus species, although their numbers vary considerably during life. Bacterial vaginosis is a common pathology characterized by dysbiosis, which increases the susceptibility for HIV infection and transmission. On the other hand, HIV infections are often characterized by a disturbed vaginal microbiota. The endogenous vaginal microbiota may protect against HIV by direct production of antiviral compounds, through blocking of adhesion and transmission by ligands such as lectins, and/or by stimulation of immune responses. The potential role of probiotics in the prevention of HIV infections and associated symptoms, by introducing them to the vaginal and gastrointestinal tract (GIT), is also discussed. Of note, the GIT is a site of considerable HIV replication and CD4+ T-cell destruction, resulting in both local and systemic inflammation. Finally, genetically engineered lactobacilli show promise as new microbicidal agents against HIV.