Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is thought to result from a dysregulated immune response to intestinal microbial flora in individuals with genetic predisposition(s). Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) in human IBD have identified more than 150 associated loci, some of which are key players in innate immunity and bacterial handling, reflecting the importance of the microbiota in disease pathogenesis. In fact, the presence of a microbial flora is not only crucial to the development of a normal murine immune system but also critical for the development of disease in the majority of animal models of IBD. Although animal models do not perfectly recapitulate human IBD, they have led to the discovery of important concepts in IBD pathogenesis, such as the central role of microbiota in disease development and perpetuation. Many genetically susceptible models do not develop colitis when raised in a germ-free or Helicobacter-free environment. In fact, disease in most models can be attenuated or completely abolished with antibiotic treatment. Moreover, an interplay between intestinal microbiota and mucosal immune activation is suggested by the presence of serum antibodies against the Cbir1 flagellin, an immunodominant antigen that activates TLR5, in certain models of spontaneous colitis as well as in human patients. Furthermore, T cells reactive to Cbir1 are able to induce disease in recipient mice upon adoptive cell transfer, demonstrating the pro-inflammatory properties of certain bacterial products. In fact, it has been shown that transfer of certain intestinal bacteria from a specific genetically altered mouse model with spontaneous colitis can induce disease in wild-type mice upon co-housing or direct feeding. These observations demonstrate the pathogenic potential of intestinal microbiota in IBD. However, intestinal bacteria are not always maladaptive in mucosal homeostasis. Both Bacteroides fragilis and Clostridium species promote the number and function of a certain regulatory T cell subset in the colon leading to protection against murine colitis. In fact, normal development of regulatory cells and epithelial cell integrity are abolished in the absence of an intestinal flora, suggestive of the need for certain microbial components to induce beneficial anti-inflammatory mechanisms. All in all, altered immune responses to microbes play a crucial role in IBD pathogenesis. However, certain components of the microbiota are also likely critical for normal development of regulatory mechanisms that contribute to mucosal homeostasis. Findings in animal models highlight the concept that IBD is a disease that results from the interplay of genetics and microbial/environmental factors.
Keywords: Animal models; Colitis; Inflammatory bowel disease; Microbiota.
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