The microbiomes of 83 preterm very-low-birth-weight (VLBW) infants and clinical covariates were analyzed weekly over the course of their initial neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) stay, with infant growth as the primary clinical outcome. Birth weight significantly correlated with increased rate of weight gain in the first 6 weeks of life, while no significant relationship was observed between rate of weight gain and feeding type. Microbial diversity increased with age and was significantly correlated with weight gain and percentage of the mother's own milk. As expected, infants who received antibiotics during their NICU stay had significantly lower alpha diversity than those who did not. Of those in the cohort, 25 were followed into childhood. Alpha diversity significantly increased between NICU discharge and age 2 years and between age 2 years and age 4 years, but the microbial alpha diversity of 4-year-old children was not significantly different from that of mothers. Infants who showed improved length over the course of their NICU stay had significantly more volatile microbial beta diversity results than and a significantly decreased microbial maturity index compared with infants who did not; interestingly, all infants who showed improved length during the NICU stay were delivered by Caesarean section. Microbial beta diversity results were significantly different between the time of the NICU stay and all other time points (for children who were 2 or 4 years old and mothers when their children were 2 or 4 years old). IMPORTANCE Preterm infants are at greater risk of microbial insult than full-term infants, including reduced exposure to maternal vaginal and enteric microbes, higher rates of formula feeding, invasive procedures, and administration of antibiotics and medications that alter gastrointestinal pH. This investigation of the VLBW infant microbiome over the course of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) stay, and at ages 2 and 4 years, showed that the only clinical variables associated with significant differences in taxon abundance were weight gain during NICU stay (Klebsiella and Staphylococcus) and antibiotic administration (Streptococcus and Bifidobacterium). At 2 and 4 years of age, the microbiota of these VLBW infants became similar to the mothers' microbiota. The number of microbial taxa shared between the infant or toddler and the mother varied, with least the overlap between infants and mothers. Overall, there was a significant association between the diversity and structure of the microbial community and infant weight and length gain in an at-risk childhood population.
Keywords: VLBW infant; infant growth; infant microbiome; longitudinal microbiome; preterm birth.