Early intestinal bacterial colonization and necrotizing enterocolitis in premature infants: the putative role of Clostridium

Pediatr Res. 2004 Sep;56(3):366-70. doi: 10.1203/01.PDR.0000134251.45878.D5. Epub 2004 Jun 16.


Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is among the most severe conditions that can affect preterm infants. Although the etiology of NEC remains unknown, initial bacterial colonization could play a pivotal role in the development of NEC. To further explore the putative relationship between pathogen microorganisms and NEC, we conducted a prospective case-control study in 12 preterm infants with a new approach based on molecular techniques. Over an inclusion period of 24 mo, 12 neonates of <34 wk gestational age admitted to the neonatal unit were enrolled. The group included three cases of NEC, and nine control infants without evidence of NEC who were matched for gestational age and birth weight. Stool samples were collected at weekly intervals from all infants. PCR and temporal temperature gradient gel electrophoresis of 16S ribosomal DNA were used to detect the establishment of bacterial communities in the digestive tract. A salient feature of the bacteriological pattern was observed only in the three infants who later developed NEC: A band corresponding to the Clostridium perfringens subgroup could be detected in early samples, before diagnosis. There was no evidence for this specific band in any of the nine controls. To our knowledge, the current report is the first to demonstrate that the use of molecular techniques based on the study of bacterial 16S rRNA genes allowed the recognition of C. perfringens species in the first 2 wk of life of three infants who later displayed symptoms of NEC. A significant temporal relationship was thus established between early colonization by Clostridium and the later development of NEC. Compared with conventional bacteriological culturing methods, the use of this new molecular approach to analyze the gastrointestinal ecosystem should therefore allow a more complete and rapid assessment of intestinal flora. Although the current data do not constitute definitive proof that the identified bacterial species was a causative agent in the development of NEC, they outline the promise of this new technique based on molecular biology, and suggest that large-scale studies on a much wider population at high risk for NEC may be warranted.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Birth Weight
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Clostridium perfringens / genetics*
  • Clostridium perfringens / metabolism*
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / etiology
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / microbiology*
  • Feces / microbiology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / pathology
  • Genes, rRNA
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA