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Molecular biology of human bacterial symbionts

The intestinal microbiota consists of trillions of beneficial bacteria, which live in a synergistic relationship with their human hosts. It has only recently been discovered that such microorganisms enormously impact our health in ways that had been completely unanticipated. Because of this, it has become important to understand how this ‘microbiome’ is built and maintained within the intestines, which is where most of our bacteria live. That is the focus of our work.

One aspect that is poorly understood is how bacteria can successfully colonize this very specialized intestinal environment in the first place, a process that starts shortly after birth. Among the first species to colonise are members of the Bacteroides genus, which remain in the intestine throughout life.

Our team is centred on understanding how macromolecular complexes from Bacteroides species allow these microorganisms to sense their environment and manipulate it to thrive inside the intestine. We use a range of approaches to ask this including biochemistry and molecular genetics to discover new molecular mechanisms of intestinal colonisation.

Overall the implications of our work are that by precisely mapping the molecules involved in colonisation and by determining their biochemical activities, in the future we will be able to use this knowledge to manipulate the intestinal microbiome for human health improvement. Moreover, a molecular understanding of bacterial colonisation will contribute to understand the reasons of why this process can go wrong as a cause or consequence of disease.

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