The human microbiome encodes a second genome that dwarfs the genetic capacity of the host. Microbiota-derived small molecules can directly target human cells and their receptors or indirectly modulate host responses through functional interactions with other microbes in their ecological niche. Their biochemical complexity has profound implications for nutrition, immune system development, disease progression, and drug metabolism, as well as the variation in these processes that exists between individuals. While the species composition of the human microbiome has been deeply explored, detailed mechanistic studies linking specific microbial molecules to host phenotypes are still nascent. In this review, we discuss challenges in decoding these interaction networks, which require interdisciplinary approaches that combine chemical biology, microbiology, immunology, genetics, analytical chemistry, bioinformatics, and synthetic biology. We highlight important classes of microbiota-derived small molecules and notable examples. An understanding of these molecular mechanisms is central to realizing the potential of precision microbiome editing in health, disease, and therapeutic responses.
Keywords: chemical signaling; host–bacteria interface; metabolite; microbiome; natural product.