"As we gained an appreciation for how profoundly the gut microbiota can affect the immune system, we decided to ask if symbiotic bacteria are the missing variable in these mice with MS," he says.
To find out, Mazmanian and his colleagues tried to induce MS in animals that were completely devoid of the microbes that normally inhabit the digestive system. "Lo and behold, these sterile animals did not get sick," he says.
Then the researchers decided to see what would happen if bacteria were reintroduced to the germ-free mice. But not just any bacteria. They inoculated mice with one specific organism, an unculturable bug from a group known as segmented filamentous bacteria. In prior studies, these bacteria had been shown to lead to intestinal inflammation and, more intriguingly, to induce in the gut the appearance of a particular immune-system cell known as Th17. Th17 cells are a type of T helper cell—cells that help activate and direct other immune system cells. Furthermore, Th17 cells induce the inflammatory cascade that leads to multiple sclerosis in animals.
"The question was, if this organism is inducing Th17 cells in the gut, will it be able to do so in the brain and central nervous system?" Mazmanian says. "Furthermore, with that one organism, can we restore to sterile animals the entire inflammatory response normally seen in animals with hundreds of species of gut bacteria?"
The answer? Yes on all counts. Giving the formerly germ-free mice a dose of one species of segmented filamentous bacteria induced Th17 not only in the gut but in the central nervous system and brain—and caused the formerly healthy mice to become ill with MS-like symptoms.