Share your science:
The maturing of the preterm infant’s gut microbiome benefits from a little probiotic help.
Illustration: Siri Jachlin / UiT The Arctic University of Norway
How beneficial bacteria can help premature babies thrive
SHARE YOUR SCIENCE: A similar type of probiotics that you take to prevent getting the runs when travelling can save lives of prematurely born babies.
Do you know
of women in your family, or perhaps other acquaintances of yours, who gave birth
before the seventh month of pregnancy?
Every year about
15 million preterm babies are born worldwide who are at high risk of infection
and inflammation. Preterm means that they are born weeks or even months before
their expected due date.
Compared to term babies, preterm babies’ bodies have an
underdeveloped immune system, impaired gut barrier function, and a very
immature microbial community in the large intestine.
gut barrier increases the chance of gut bacteria being transferred to the
bloodstream, resulting in life-threatening sepsis.
Probiotic bacteria can assist newborns in various ways, including training their immune systems and eradicating harmful bacteria from the gut.
Besides, as a result of
being hospitalised, preterm newborns are exposed to pathogenic bacteria that can
confer antibiotic resistance and cause diseases. Additionally, preterm babies
have a low number of beneficial gut bacteria.
Because of these circumstances, antibiotics are
frequently given to vulnerable preterm babies to prevent infection and sepsis. Unfortunately,
antibiotics also kill or suppress the beneficial bacteria, resulting in
pathogenic bacteria overgrowth. As a result, the antibiotic use might aggravate
the developing infection.
So, what to
Ph.D student Ahmed Bargheet at UiT has investigated the benefits of using probiotics instead of antibiotics to protect the gut health of premature babies. (Video: YouTube)
the negative consequences of antibiotic use and reduce rates of devastating illness,
such as sepsis and necrotising enterocolitis, preterm babies in intensive care units
might receive probiotics. That is, bacteria that naturally exist in the human gut
and have proven health benefits. It is a similar kind of bacteria that people buy
without a prescription to prevent getting the runs while travelling abroad.
and other microorganisms, have been commonly thought of as something that makes
people sick. However, the human body is eventually colonised with billions of
bacteria. Most live in valuable symbiosis with us humans, but some have
are beneficial microorganisms that can keep the human body functioning
properly. Probiotic bacteria can assist newborns in various ways, including training
their immune systems and eradicating harmful bacteria from the gut.
bacteria to qualify as probiotics to be used in neonatal intensive care units,
they must be isolated from humans, survive in the intestine, be safe, not cause
disease, and importantly, have documented health advantages.
How do probiotics work?
Probiotics can fight off harmful bacteria and restore gut
balance, rendering preterm babies’ gut bacteria more like healthy full-term babies.
For example, probiotic bacteria can:
- Make natural
antibiotics (bacteriocins) that eradicate the detrimental bacteria
- Produce metabolites
that limit the growth of harmful bacteria
pathogenic bacteria for nutrients
- Activate the
- Help to maintain
the strength of the protective lining in the intestines, the epithelial
barrier. By doing so, they reduce the chances of harmful bacteria making their
way into the bloodstream.
Probiotic use leads to fewer antibiotic resistant genes…
In our new study, we document that probiotics boost
microbiota maturation in preterm infants to levels comparable with full-term newborns.
Additionally, we found that despite being extensively treated with antibiotics,
probiotic-supplemented preterm newborns had bacteria that carried substantially
less antibiotic resistance genes than babies that did not receive probiotics.
amounts and composition of antibiotic resistant genes in the probiotic-supplemented
preterm infants were similar to term newborns who did not receive antibiotics.
...but might increase gene transfer across bacteria
However, we also made a novel finding that the
probiotic-supplemented preterm newborns had higher carriage of mobile genetic
elements (MGEs) within their gut bacteria, when compared to term newborns or
preterm infants not supplemented with probiotics. These MGEs have the capacity to
transfer genes, including those carrying antibiotic resistance, between
These surprising results suggest that probiotic
supplementation, along with other factors, such as long hospital stay and
antibiotic use, influence the overall presence of MGEs. To really understand
how probiotic bacteria affect antibiotic resistance and gene transfer in
babies' guts, further clinical research will be essential.
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