Micro-organisms or microbes are microscopic living things

Disease-causing Microbes

Microbes / November 19, 2017

At the turn of the last century, German physician Robert Koch identified four critical criteria for determining whether or not a particular microbe causes a disease. The ideas behind them were crucial for advancing medicine and formalizing the germ theory of disease. Over the last century, these postulates have been updated as medicine has advanced.

In what may end up being the most recent of these updates, biologists Allyson Byrd and Julia Segre propose some adjustments to these classic medical postulates intended to bring them in line with analytic techniques based on DNA sequencing and the most current understanding of bacterial communities. Just as the previous updates to Koch’s postulates did, these proposed amendments incorporate cutting-edge scientific knowledge and add nuance to our understanding of the causes of disease.

Koch’s original postulates are that, if a microorganism causes a disease, then:

  1. For every single case of the disease, the microorganism will be present.
  2. Healthy people will not carry the microorganism—if they did, they would be sick.
  3. The microorganism can be isolated and cultured in a lab, then used to infect new people.
  4. The microorganism can be re-isolated from a person who was experimentally infected.

These four postulates have been used by scientists and doctors for years to demonstrate that a given microorganism is the cause of a disease, though they have been updated as medicine has progressed. For example, once knowledge of asymptomatic carriers became more commonplace—think "typhoid Mary"—these individuals became a known exception to Koch’s postulates. Additionally, certain pathogens, like prions, are known exceptions to Koch’s second postulate.

In more recent years, DNA sequencing and other analytic advancements have improved our ability to identify microorganisms, and incorporation of these techniques into Koch’s postulates would bolster their usefulness. Additionally, scientists have begun to understand the complex microbiome that inhabits our bodies, which also has an effect on disease progression.

In human bodies, there are a wide variety of bacteria that naturally inhabit the gut, mouth, and other areas. These bacteria, known as commensal microorganisms, find an inviting environment within the human body and can provide the body with some benefit.

Some commensal organisms have the ability to protect their host from infection by another microorganism, either by inhibiting the intruder’s growth or by activating the host’s immune system. Communities of commensal microbes can also influence infection rates, sometimes providing even a more robust protective effect.

Although we’ve had some knowledge of infection resistance due to commensal organisms, previous adaptations of Koch’s postulates did not address one potential outcome of their activity: cases where the presence of a pathogen does not cause an infection but possibly turns someone into a disease carrier.

In fact, the presence of commensal organisms and their ability to fight off disease challenges the postulate that a pathogenic microorganism will always induce disease in an infected host. DNA sequencing has revealed the presence of disease-causing bacteria in many healthy individuals.

Source: arstechnica.com
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