Virulence or niche factors: what's in a name?

J Bacteriol. 2012 Nov;194(21):5725-7. doi: 10.1128/JB.00980-12. Epub 2012 Jul 20.


The increasing interest in the human microbiota raises some interesting questions about the terminology we use to describe some of the structures and strategies employed by commensal and pathogenic microbes to compete in these complex biological ecosystems. For example, all microbes arriving in the alimentary tract face the task of surviving passage through the stomach, coping with bile, interacting with the immune system, competing with the established microbiota, and obtaining sufficient nutrients to gain a foothold in this hostile environment. It is not surprising then that many gastrointestinal microbes (both pathogens and commensals) use similar strategies to overcome the challenges associated with this particular biological niche. Given that many of these structures and strategies were discovered and characterized in pathogens and because they often play important roles in establishing and maintaining an infection, they have often been characterized as virulence factors. It would be misleading to describe the same strategies and structures found in harmless commensals as "virulence factors," since they represent a sine qua non for life in the gastrointestinal tract. It may be time to reconsider and refer to them as "niche factors," both in terms of providing scientific accuracy but also in light of the growing interest in using gut microbes as probiotics, where the distinction between virulence factors and niche factors is likely to be very important from a regulatory perspective.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / pathogenicity*
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology
  • Humans
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Virulence
  • Virulence Factors / metabolism*


  • Virulence Factors