Study: Healthy Gut Microbiome Responsible for Mucus Layer in the Colon

A study published in Science redefines how the gut microbiome operates, finding it responsible for the production of the mucus layer in the colon, which is not as static as previously thought. According to the authors of the study, the findings could lead to new therapies for inflammatory bowel disease and people who've had portions of their bowels removed due to conditions such as colon cancer and ulcerative colitis.

The study found that the microbiome controls the creation of a mucus layer that encapsulates and travels with fecal matter, which acts as a barrier between bacteria in feces and the thousands of immune cells in the colon. If the mucus layer is not present, the system is thrown out of balance.

“The colon is not just a digestive organ, but an immune organ,” said Lijun Xia, MD, PhD, in a press release. “Our microbiome begins to develop at the moment of birth and evolves throughout our lives. It's essential for the growth and maturation of the acquired immune system in our body. When it's not well developed or cared for, it doesn't operate as it should, which can lead to diseases.”

The researchers found that the fecal matter of mice treated with a broad-spectrum antibiotic had no trace of the mucus coating. When mice without this protective barrier received a transplant of fecal matter with microbiome, their mucus production resumed, effectively demonstrating that interruptions to mucus production in the colon can be corrected.

“Whether because of antibiotics interrupting mucus production or a total colon removal due to ulcerative colitis, painful inflammation can result," Xia said in the release. "Now that we better understand the role and origin of this mucus, we will study how we can supplement it or restore its production.”

According to the authors, the study’s findings may open the door to alternatives to colonoscopies for monitoring conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.

“Rather than repeated invasive procedures to track the progression of IBD, we may be able to measure the presence of the mucus in a fecal sample and assess a patient's gut health,” Xia said.

REFERENCE

Discoveries reshape understanding of gut microbiome [news release]. EurekAlert; October 22, 2020. Accessed May 5, 2021. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-10/omrf-dru101620.php