Background: Culture-independent analysis of the respiratory secretions of people with cystic fibrosis (CF) has identified many bacterial species not previously detected using culture in this context. However, little is known about their clinical significance or persistence in CF airways.
Methods: The authors characterised the viable bacterial communities in the sputum collected from 14 patients at monthly intervals over 1 year using a molecular community profiling technique-terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism. Clinical characteristics were also collected, including lung function and medications. Ecological community measures were determined for each sample. Microbial community change over time within subjects was defined using ecological analytical tools, and these measures were compared between subjects and to clinical features.
Results: Bacterial communities were stable within subjects over time but varied between subjects, despite similarities in clinical course. Antibiotic therapy temporarily perturbed these communities which generally returned to pretreatment configurations within 1 month. Species usually considered CF pathogens and those not previously regarded as such exhibited similar patterns of persistence. Less diverse sputum bacterial communities were correlated to lung disease severity and relative abundance of Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Conclusion: Whilst not true in all cases, the microbial communities that chronically infect the airways of patients with CF can vary little over a year despite antibiotic perturbation. The species present tended to vary more between than within subjects, suggesting that each CF airway infection is unique, with relatively stable and resilient bacterial communities. The inverse relationship between community richness and disease severity is similar to findings reported in other mucosal infections.