A new study
published online in the journal Cell
has suggested that some bacteria may be able to prevent the anorexia response that occurs in an animal that they infect. This not only allows the infected animal to survive, but also helps the bacterium to spread to new hosts and continue to cause disease.
“It’s well known that infections cause a loss of appetite,” Janelle S. Ayres, PhD, from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California, told Contagion
. According to Dr. Ayres and colleagues, this sickness-induced anorexia is a behavioral modification that is a kind of coping strategy used by the body to increase the animal’s chances of surviving the infection.
Dr. Ayres told Contagion
that recent studies have focused on understanding how this loss of appetite functions in helping the host survive an infection. “Most of these studies have relied largely on injecting microbes or microbial projects into the circulation of the host, and asking how nutrient status affects the animal’s ability to survive the challenge,” she said. However, she stressed that the host is only part of the host-pathogen equation, and that one limitation of previous studies is that they have not examined how the host’s loss of appetite affects the pathogen’s behavior and its ability to cause disease.
“In the current study, we wanted to understand how the fasted state affects pathogen virulence in a natural host-pathogen system,” Dr. Ayres explained. Therefore, the researchers conducted a study in mice to examine the physiological role of sickness-induced anorexia in host defenses. They used Salmonella
Typhimurium, a natural intestinal pathogen in mice and humans that easily transmits to new hosts. They also orally infected the mice with the bacterium, to mimic the natural route of transmission of this organism.
According to Dr. Ayres, hosts that were fasted when orally infected with Salmonella
did worse than infected mice that were allowed to feed. However, this was not due to defects in the host immune response, because the levels of Salmonella
in the intestines of fasted mice were similar to those in the fed mice that survived.
Instead, they found that the host’s feeding status affected pathogen behavior and virulence. In mice that were fasted, Salmonella
became more virulent and invaded systemic tissues, including the liver and spleen, causing a typhoid-like disease. However, in mice that were fed, Salmonella
did not spread to systemic tissues, caused less disease, and was shed in the feces of the mice. This suggests that “there are trade-offs between virulence and transmission,” said Dr. Ayres.