Development of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) requires a susceptible host, typically a premature infant or an infant with congenital heart disease, enteral feedings and bacterial colonization. Although there is little doubt that microbes are critically involved in the pathogenesis of NEC, the identity of specific causative pathogens remains elusive. Unlike established normal adult gut microbiota, which is quite complex, uniform, and stable, early postnatal bacterial populations are simple, diverse, and fluid. These properties complicate studies aimed at elucidating characteristics of the gut microbiome that may play a role in the pathogenesis of NEC. A broad variety of bacterial, viral, and fungal species have been implicated in both clinical and experimental NEC. Frequently, however, the same species have also been found in physiologically matched healthy individuals. Clustered outbreaks of NEC, in which the same strain of a suspected pathogen is detected in several patients suggest, but do not prove, a causative relationship between the specific pathogen and the disease. Studies in Cronobacter sakazakii, the best characterized NEC pathogen, have demonstrated that virulence is not a property of a bacterial species as a whole, but rather a characteristic of certain strains, which may explain why the same species can be pathogenic or non-pathogenic. The fact that a given microbe may be innocuous in a full-term, yet pathogenic in a pre-term infant has led to the idea of opportunistic pathogens in NEC. Progress in understanding the infectious nature of NEC may require identifying specific pathogenic strains and unambiguously establishing their virulence in animal models.
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