Preterm birth (PTB) is the leading cause of neonatal morbidity and mortality. Previous studies have suggested that the maternal vaginal microbiota contributes to the pathophysiology of PTB, but conflicting results in recent years have raised doubts. We conducted a study of PTB compared with term birth in two cohorts of pregnant women: one predominantly Caucasian (n = 39) at low risk for PTB, the second predominantly African American and at high-risk (n = 96). We profiled the taxonomic composition of 2,179 vaginal swabs collected prospectively and weekly during gestation using 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Previously proposed associations between PTB and lower Lactobacillus and higher Gardnerella abundances replicated in the low-risk cohort, but not in the high-risk cohort. High-resolution bioinformatics enabled taxonomic assignment to the species and subspecies levels, revealing that Lactobacillus crispatus was associated with low risk of PTB in both cohorts, while Lactobacillus iners was not, and that a subspecies clade of Gardnerella vaginalis explained the genus association with PTB. Patterns of cooccurrence between L. crispatus and Gardnerella were highly exclusive, while Gardnerella and L. iners often coexisted at high frequencies. We argue that the vaginal microbiota is better represented by the quantitative frequencies of these key taxa than by classifying communities into five community state types. Our findings extend and corroborate the association between the vaginal microbiota and PTB, demonstrate the benefits of high-resolution statistical bioinformatics in clinical microbiome studies, and suggest that previous conflicting results may reflect the different risk profile of women of black race.
Keywords: Gardnerella; Lactobacillus; pregnancy; prematurity; vaginal microbiota.