The role of gut microbiota (commensal bacteria) and the mucosal barrier in the pathogenesis of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases and cancer: contribution of germ-free and gnotobiotic animal models of human diseases

Cell Mol Immunol. 2011 Mar;8(2):110-20. doi: 10.1038/cmi.2010.67. Epub 2011 Jan 31.


Metagenomic approaches are currently being used to decipher the genome of the microbiota (microbiome), and, in parallel, functional studies are being performed to analyze the effects of the microbiota on the host. Gnotobiological methods are an indispensable tool for studying the consequences of bacterial colonization. Animals used as models of human diseases can be maintained in sterile conditions (isolators used for germ-free rearing) and specifically colonized with defined microbes (including non-cultivable commensal bacteria). The effects of the germ-free state or the effects of colonization on disease initiation and maintenance can be observed in these models. Using this approach we demonstrated direct involvement of components of the microbiota in chronic intestinal inflammation and development of colonic neoplasia (i.e., using models of human inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal carcinoma). In contrast, a protective effect of microbiota colonization was demonstrated for the development of autoimmune diabetes in non-obese diabetic (NOD) mice. Interestingly, the development of atherosclerosis in germ-free apolipoprotein E (ApoE)-deficient mice fed by a standard low-cholesterol diet is accelerated compared with conventionally reared animals. Mucosal induction of tolerance to allergen Bet v1 was not influenced by the presence or absence of microbiota. Identification of components of the microbiota and elucidation of the molecular mechanisms of their action in inducing pathological changes or exerting beneficial, disease-protective activities could aid in our ability to influence the composition of the microbiota and to find bacterial strains and components (e.g., probiotics and prebiotics) whose administration may aid in disease prevention and treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmune Diseases / etiology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / microbiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology*
  • Germ-Free Life*
  • Humans
  • Immunity
  • Inflammation / etiology*
  • Inflammation / microbiology
  • Metagenome / immunology*
  • Mucous Membrane / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / microbiology