Better living through microbial action: the benefits of the mammalian gastrointestinal microbiota on the host


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Mammals live in a homeostatic symbiosis with their gastrointestinal microbiota. The mammalian host provides the microbiota with nutrients and a stable environment; whereas the microbiota helps shaping the host's gut mucosa and provides nutritional contributions. Microorganisms start colonizing the gut immediately after birth followed by a succession of populations until a stable, adult microbiota has been established. However, physiological conditions differ substantially among locations in the gut and determine bacterial density and diversity. While Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes dominate the gut microbiota in all mammals, the bacterial genera and species diversity is huge and reflects mammalian phylogeny. The main function of the gastrointestinal epithelium is to absorb nutrients and to retain water and electrolytes, yet at the same time it is an efficient barrier against harmful compounds and microorganisms, and is able to neutralize antagonists coincidentally breaching the barrier. These processes are influenced by the microbiota, which modify epithelial expression of genes involved in nutrient uptake and metabolism, mucosal barrier function, xenobiotic metabolism, enteric nervous system and motility, hormonal and maturational responses, angiogenesis, cytoskeleton and extracellular matrix, signal transduction, and general cellular functions. Whereas such effects are local at the gut epithelium they may eventually have systemic consequences, e.g. on body weight and composition.