A new lexicon in the age of microbiome research

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2024 May 6;379(1901):20230060. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2023.0060. Epub 2024 Mar 18.


At a rapid pace, biologists are learning the many ways in which resident microbes influence, and sometimes even control, their hosts to shape both health and disease. Understanding the biochemistry behind these interactions promises to reveal completely novel and targeted ways of counteracting disease processes. However, in our protocols and publications, we continue to describe these new results using a language that originated in a completely different context. This language developed when microbial interactions with hosts were perceived to be primarily pathogenic, as threats that had to be vanquished. Biomedicine had one dominating thought: winning this war against microorganisms. Today, we know that beyond their defensive roles, host tissues, especially epithelia, are vital to ensuring association with the normal microbiota, the communities of microbes that persistently live with the host. Thus, we need to adopt a language that better encompasses the newly appreciated importance of host-microbiota associations. We also need a language that frames the onset and progression of pathogenic conditions within the context of the normal microbiota. Such a reimagined lexicon should make it clear, from the very nature of its words, that microorganisms are primarily vital to our health, and only more rarely the cause of disease. This article is part of the theme issue 'Sculpting the microbiome: how host factors determine and respond to microbial colonization'.

Keywords: antimicrobial peptides; commensal; immunity; microbe-associated molecular patterns; pathogen; symbiosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communicable Diseases*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Microbial Interactions
  • Microbiota*
  • Symbiosis