Lactic acid bacteria vs. pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract of fish: a review


Correspondence: E Ringø, Department of Marine Biotechnology, Norwegian College of Fishery Science, University of Tromsø, N-9037 Tromsø, Norway. E-mail:


Intensive fish production worldwide has increased the risk of infectious diseases. However, before any infection can be established, pathogens must penetrate the primary barrier. In fish, the three major routes of infection are the skin, gills and gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract is essentially a muscular tube lined by a mucous membrane of columnar epithelial cells that exhibit a regional variation in structure and function. In the last two decades, our understanding of the endocytosis and translocation of bacteria across this mucosa, and the sorts of cell damage caused by pathogenic bacteria, has increased. Electron microscopy has made a valuable contribution to this knowledge. In the fish-farming industry, severe economic losses are caused by furunculosis (agent, Aeromonas salmonicida spp. salmonicida) and vibriosis [agent, Vibrio (Listonella) anguillarum]. This article provides an overview of the GI tract of fish from an electron microscopical perspective focusing on cellular damage (specific attack on tight junctions and desmosomes) caused by pathogenic bacteria, and interactions between the ‘good’ intestinal bacteria [e.g. lactic acid bacteria (LAB)] and pathogens. Using different in vitro methods, several studies have demonstrated that co-incubation of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) foregut (proximal intestine) with LAB and pathogens can have beneficial effects, the cell damage caused by the pathogens being prevented, to some extent, by the LAB. However, there is uncertainty over whether or not similar effects are observed in other species such as Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua L.). When discussing cellular damage in the GI tract of fish caused by pathogenic bacteria, several important questions arise including: (1) Do different pathogenic bacteria use different mechanisms to infect the gut? (2) Does the gradual development of the GI tract from larva to adult affect infection? (3) Are there different infection patterns between different fish species? The present article addresses these and other questions.