Moving beyond microbiome-wide associations to causal microbe identification.
Microbiome-wide association studies have established that numerous diseases are associated with changes in the microbiota. These studies typically generate a long list of commensals implicated as biomarkers of disease, with no clear relevance to disease pathogenesis. If the field is to move beyond correlations and begin to address causation, an effective system is needed for refining this catalogue of differentially abundant microbes and to allow subsequent mechanistic studies. Here we demonstrate that triangulation of microbe-phenotype relationships is an effective method for reducing the noise inherent in microbiota studies and enabling identification of causal microbes. We found that gnotobiotic mice harbouring different microbial communities exhibited differential survival in a colitis model. Co-housing of these mice generated animals that had hybrid microbiotas and displayed intermediate susceptibility to colitis. Mapping of microbe-phenotype relationships in parental mouse strains and in mice with hybrid microbiotas identified the bacterial family Lachnospiraceae as a correlate for protection from disease. Using directed microbial culture techniques, we discovered Clostridium immunis, a previously unknown bacterial species from this family, that-when administered to colitis-prone mice-protected them against colitis-associated death. To demonstrate the generalizability of our approach, we used it to identify several commensal organisms that induce intestinal expression of an antimicrobial peptide. Thus, we have used microbe-phenotype triangulation to move beyond the standard correlative microbiome study and identify causal microbes for two completely distinct phenotypes. Identification of disease-modulating commensals by microbe-phenotype triangulation may be more broadly applicable to human microbiome studies.
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