Microbiome of infants may play a major role in the development of adult diseases

CWRU faculty organize special issue of Embryo Today dedicated to microbiome

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine organized a special issue of Birth Defects Research Part C: Embryo Today dedicated to the microbiome and the role it plays in embryo development as well as long-term health into adulthood.

Michiko Watanabe
Michiko Watanabe

Michiko Watanabe, professor of pediatrics, genetics and anatomy, and Sharon Meropol, assistant professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics, edited the special issue, called “The Microbiome and Childhood Diseases.”

The term “microbiome” refers to the trillions of organisms humans harbor, both on the skin and within the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Traditionally, these populations were thought of as benign squatters (or harmful, in some cases). Today, there is increasing evidence that these microbial communities on and in the body play fundamental roles in the development of the human immune, metabolic, and nervous systems, even during early fetal development.

Research also suggests that a disturbed microbiota may contribute to a wide range of childhood conditions, including allergies, obesity and autism-like neurodevelopmental conditions, and may have the potential to exacerbate structural birth defects, if not create them.

Sharon Meropol
Sharon Meropol

“This collection of review articles describes an emerging picture of the key importance of the microbiome; this begins, contrary to previous beliefs, even in the womb, and then continues after birth through early childhood,” said Meropol, also associate director for research and evaluation at the Center for Child Health and Policy at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. “We hope these review articles will help foster discussion on how modern environmental exposures can alter the infant microbiome, and the resulting potential impacts on fetal and infant health and development.”

Papers in the special issue include:

  • The influence of the young microbiome on inflammatory diseases – lessons from animal studies
  • Development of the infant intestinal microbiome: A bird’s eye view of a complex process
  • The very low birth weight infant microbiome and childhood health
  • Microbial programming of health and disease starts during fetal life
  • On the origin of species: Factors shaping the establishment of infant’s gut microbiota
  • Microbiota-gut-brain axis: From neurodevelopment to behavior

“We have just scratched the surface in understanding how the internal universe of maternal, fetal and infant-colonizing microbiota, interacting with genetic and environmental factors, can influence child development,” said Watanabe, also deputy editor of Birth Defects Research. “The significance is that we are developing a better understanding of how protecting the key steps in the transfer and maintenance of the normal microbiota in pregnant mothers and fetuses may prevent immunological, metabolic, and neurological deficits that could be considered birth defects.”