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Let Them Eat Dirt

Early exposure to microbes shapes the mammalian immune system by subduing inflammatory T cells.

By | March 22, 2012

image: Let Them Eat Dirt Flickr, David K.

FLICKR, DAVID K.

Maybe it’s okay to let your toddler lick the swing set and kiss the dog. A new mouse study suggests early exposure to microbes is essential for normal immune development, supporting the so-called “hygiene hypothesis” which states that lack of such exposure leads to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. Specifically, the study found that early-life microbe exposure decreases the number of inflammatory immune cells in the lungs and colon, lowering susceptibility to asthma and inflammatory bowel diseases later in life.

The finding, published today (March 21) in Science, may help explain why there has been a rise in autoimmune diseases in sterile, antibiotic-saturated developed countries.

“There have been many clues that environmental factors, particularly microbiota, play a role in disease risk, but there’s very little information about when it’s critical for that exposure to take place,” said Jonathan Braun, chair of pathology and laboratory medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the research. “This is one of the most compelling observations to pin down that time frame.”

The mammalian immune system is dramatically influenced and shaped by exposure to microbes throughout life. Epidemiological evidence suggests that early-life exposure to bacteria may be key in preventing two immune diseases: asthma and ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease.

To explore that link, Dennis Kasper, Richard Blumberg, and colleagues at Harvard Medical School examined susceptibility to both diseases in germ free mice and normal lab mice. “We were surprised to learn that germ free mice were extremely susceptible to both diseases,” said Kasper, “but normal, colonized mice were pretty resistant to both.” In an attempt to reverse the phenotype, the researchers colonized germ-free adults with microbes, but nothing changed: the mice remained susceptible to both diseases. Then the team colonized germ-free pregnant females just before giving birth, and found that their pups were protected against the diseases. The results suggest that it may be critical for mammals to be exposed to the right microbes quite early in life, said Kasper.

It is also known that natural killer T (NKT) cells—immune cells that detect antigens and produce large amounts of inflammatory cytokines—play some role in both diseases. To see if these cells were involved in the susceptibility patterns, the researchers counted NKT cells in germ free and normal lab mice. Normal mice had very low numbers of NKT cells in their lungs and colon, while germ-free mice had high numbers. And once again, colonizing adult germ free mice with microbes changed nothing: the mice’s NKT cell counts remained high, and the mice were still susceptible to both diseases. But when the team used antibodies to block NKT cell activation in young germ-free mice, effectively preventing NKT cells from ever getting a foothold, the mice were protected against the two diseases, suggesting the high NKT counts were at the root of their high susceptibility.

The researchers also identified a protein made by epithelial cells called CXCL16, whose increased expression accompanied increased NKT cell numbers. The more CXCL16 that was present, the higher the levels of NKT cells. It’s possible that bacteria in early life block the production of NKT cells by blocking CXCL16, Kasper suggested, but for now that remains a hypothesis.

“They’ve identified two key players—the epithelium and the NKT cells—but it immediately opens the question of whether other cell types are also involved,” said Braun.

Though Kasper is cautious to make generalizations about how the finding applies to humans, it does fit the “hygiene hypothesis,” he said, which proposes that the increasing occurrence of asthma and other inflammatory diseases in the developed world may be due to a reduced exposure to microbes early in life. But most importantly, future studies of human microbiota and the immune system should zero in on early childhood, he emphasized. “It’s quite important to focus on this early period.”

T. Olszak et al., “Microbial exposure during early life has persistent effects on natural killer T cell function,” Science, doi:10.1126/science.1219328, 2012.

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Comments

Avatar of: stew

stew

Posts: 1457

March 22, 2012

In this case, microbes were passed from germy mother to offspring, and
that's how human infants are colonized too.  I'd wager that the
problem isn't that we don't have enough barefoot-dirt-play, it's that we
give our kids antibiotics way too early in life, and also possibly that
we are facing a generational decrease in the diversity of human
microbiota (due to generations of antibiotic use winnowing the set of
inheritable microbes, see also: (paywalled) http://www.nature.com/nrmicro/....

That bone-picking aside, these are some very interesting results.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 22, 2012

In this case, microbes were passed from germy mother to offspring, and
that's how human infants are colonized too.  I'd wager that the
problem isn't that we don't have enough barefoot-dirt-play, it's that we
give our kids antibiotics way too early in life, and also possibly that
we are facing a generational decrease in the diversity of human
microbiota (due to generations of antibiotic use winnowing the set of
inheritable microbes, see also: (paywalled) http://www.nature.com/nrmicro/....

That bone-picking aside, these are some very interesting results.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 23, 2012

Some Chinese mothers go for weeks without bathing and hair washing after giving birth, perhaps through some innate knowledge that the children must build up immunity to their mother's germs so they become strong. Tiger mothers strike again.

Avatar of: Susan Runowicz-Smith

Susan Runowicz-Smith

Posts: 1457

March 23, 2012

Some Chinese mothers go for weeks without bathing and hair washing after giving birth, perhaps through some innate knowledge that the children must build up immunity to their mother's germs so they become strong. Tiger mothers strike again.

Avatar of: brian thomson

brian thomson

Posts: 1457

March 24, 2012

Knowing the role that T-cells play in other autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, I wonder whether this research is going to be useful there too?

Avatar of: Toffer99

Toffer99

Posts: 1

March 24, 2012

I thought that this had been known for years. Wrong I guess.

Avatar of: naltiok

naltiok

Posts: 5

March 24, 2012

Yes, my grandma used to say this.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

March 24, 2012

Writing as someone who had an intimate acquaintance with dirt while growing up - and wild-type African dirt at that - and who has seen just how protected modern children are, I can only applaud this finding.  Of course, there is the little problem of how our increasingly urbanised children are going to FIND dirt to play in....

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 24, 2012

Knowing the role that T-cells play in other autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, I wonder whether this research is going to be useful there too?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 24, 2012

I thought that this had been known for years. Wrong I guess.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 24, 2012

Yes, my grandma used to say this.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 24, 2012

Writing as someone who had an intimate acquaintance with dirt while growing up - and wild-type African dirt at that - and who has seen just how protected modern children are, I can only applaud this finding.  Of course, there is the little problem of how our increasingly urbanised children are going to FIND dirt to play in....

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 25, 2012

Complete bullshit! I have always been able to eat dirt and played most of my early life outdoors in the streets and garden. Ok, I am only one and not statisticaly significant. My guess is: Chemicals all over the place in the early 70ties, car exhaust + lead in the air + remnants of radioactive fallout from 50ties and 60ties made big cocktail of bad stuff that hits your immune system and lets it run amok. Who oes a study about that? "Not enough dirt" is just a myth in my book!
Btw. I got asthma and other "auto"immune system failures with 15 years.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 25, 2012

Knowing something is quite different from finding a "scientific reason"! This study is great in having some ooomph behind arguing for more dirt and mud for today's kids.

Avatar of: Antidot Nyarlat

Antidot Nyarlat

Posts: 1457

March 25, 2012

Complete bullshit! I have always been able to eat dirt and played most of my early life outdoors in the streets and garden. Ok, I am only one and not statisticaly significant. My guess is: Chemicals all over the place in the early 70ties, car exhaust + lead in the air + remnants of radioactive fallout from 50ties and 60ties made big cocktail of bad stuff that hits your immune system and lets it run amok. Who oes a study about that? "Not enough dirt" is just a myth in my book!
Btw. I got asthma and other "auto"immune system failures with 15 years.

Avatar of: Siri Bjoner

Siri Bjoner

Posts: 1

March 25, 2012

Knowing something is quite different from finding a "scientific reason"! This study is great in having some ooomph behind arguing for more dirt and mud for today's kids.

Avatar of: Jason Anthony Tetro

Jason Anthony Tetro

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

I've been saying it for years...to much delight from my audiences too...

Avatar of: alexandru

alexandru

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

Mark 7.15 - "There is nothing that goes into a person from the outside which can
make him ritually unclean. Rather, is it what comes out of a person that makes
him unclean.'

Actually, in addition with Adam mtDNA
inheritance theory and Paul, Hebrew 4.12, I scientifically explained this paragraph
because paternal mitochondria DNA, existed only in xiphoid process, controls
the immunity system.

Attention please, to the children! - Not play
in *informational dirt place*, not exactly in biologically dirt place.
 

Avatar of: Jason Anthony Tetro

Jason Anthony Tetro

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

I've been saying this for years!  Check out one of my television interviews where I say just that!  http://www.rogerstv.com/page.a...

Avatar of: Jason Anthony Tetro

Jason Anthony Tetro

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

I've been saying this for years!  Check out one of my television interviews where I say just that!  http://www.rogerstv.com/page.a...

Avatar of: jana rade

jana rade

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

I just yesterday heard about a study which shows that the 5th child is way healthier with better functioning immune system. Explanation for that being that while a 1st child is likely to develop in a totally sterile environment, situation will be dramatically different with each consequent one.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

I've been saying it for years...to much delight from my audiences too...

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

Mark 7.15 - "There is nothing that goes into a person from the outside which can
make him ritually unclean. Rather, is it what comes out of a person that makes
him unclean.'

Actually, in addition with Adam mtDNA
inheritance theory and Paul, Hebrew 4.12, I scientifically explained this paragraph
because paternal mitochondria DNA, existed only in xiphoid process, controls
the immunity system.

Attention please, to the children! - Not play
in *informational dirt place*, not exactly in biologically dirt place.
 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

I've been saying this for years!  Check out one of my television interviews where I say just that!  http://www.rogerstv.com/page.a...

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

I've been saying this for years!  Check out one of my television interviews where I say just that!  http://www.rogerstv.com/page.a...

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

I just yesterday heard about a study which shows that the 5th child is way healthier with better functioning immune system. Explanation for that being that while a 1st child is likely to develop in a totally sterile environment, situation will be dramatically different with each consequent one.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 31, 2012

This information should be added into Taking care of Baby books that are distributed to all new parents.  

Avatar of: Cadrin

Cadrin

Posts: 2

March 31, 2012

This information should be added into Taking care of Baby books that are distributed to all new parents.  

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