The human body is host to a plethora of microorganisms and, for the most part, their presence has no ill effects. Some, particularly intestinal bacteria, even provide benefit. From a microbial perspective, harming the host does not have any obvious survival benefit (unless it enables infection to spread, such as the sneezing induced by the cold virus). So why is it that inoffensive organisms occasionally turn nasty, evolving properties that are damaging or even deadly to us? A study funded by the US Public Health Service and the Wellcome Trust provides one answer to the question.
Since many pathogens interact with their host at mucosal surfaces and have to compete with other microflora, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Oxford University used a mouse model of nasal infection to investigate whether competition between microbes promoted virulence. They found that Haemophilus influenzae was able to out-compete Streptococcus pneumoniae by recruiting the host’s immune system. S. pneumoniae is normally harmless and ignored by the immune system, but the immune response stimulated by H. influenzae has unintended consequences. S. pneumoniae strains with polysaccharide capsules that confer resistance to the immune attack are able to survive at the expense of non-resistant strains, resulting in a S. pneumoniae population dominated by the resistant phenotype. Unfortunately, the resistant strains are also more dangerous – if they are able to enter the bloodstream they can multiply unchecked and go on to cause pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis. So in this battle between S. pneumoniae and H. influenzae, with weapons provided by the host, S. pneumoniae prevails at the expense of the host.
The study is published in Current Biology.