Genome research on mouth fungi may help predict infections

March 11, 2014
Linda Strausbaugh, left, professor of molecular and cell biology, Amanda Dupuy, a Ph.D. student, and Patricia Diaz, assistant clinical professor of periodontology, review research data in a lab at Beach Hall. Credit: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

(Medical Xpress)—Using a novel genome-based approach, researchers in UConn's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Dental Medicine have identified and described the community of fungi that lives in an average healthy person's mouth.

The findings will eventually help better understand, treat, and possibly prevent the oral infections that can occur in many patients whose immune systems are suppressed, like people undergoing therapy for cancer and the elderly.

These infections often make it hard for people to eat, take medications, and even speak, and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body.

"There has been a lot of genome work done on bacteria in the body, but almost none on ," says Linda Strausbaugh, professor of molecular and cell biology in CLAS.

"This is the first study to identify medically-important oral fungi on a large scale," she notes. "Our study is particularly important because we developed methods to assure the identifications we were making from genomic data were indeed correct. Our long-term goal is to help take a personalized approach to medicine."

The findings are based on the idea that these infections are associated with the disruption of people's normally-functioning complement of bacteria and fungi in their mouths.

Like the complement of non-harmful bacteria in the mammalian gut, many species of bacteria and fungi live peacefully in the mouths of humans and other mammals. Characterizations have typically involved studies that take swabs of people's mouths and then identify fungi by culturing them in the laboratory.

These studies are limited, says Strausbaugh's graduate student Amanda Dupuy, because they rely on getting fungi to grow in laboratory conditions, which are often unfavorable.

"This genomics approach is so important," says Dupuy, "because it uses DNA to identify the full range of fungi found in the mouth."

Strausbaugh, Dupuy, and their colleagues used a novel approach to "breaking" fungi in the laboratory, using special zirconia beads to crack open fungi collected from people's saliva samples, allowing them to investigate the DNA of a wide range of oral fungi.

"Many of us think of fungi solely as mushrooms," says Strausbaugh. "But most are not mushrooms, and some are encapsulated in hard cellular walls, which need to be broken so we can get at the DNA inside."

This approach allowed the research group to identify more than 25 groups of fungi that occurred in more than half of their research subjects, and also to identify a species of fungus that was very prominent but never before observed in the mouth. Dupuy says that these top 25 groups are biomedically important because they represent a baseline description of an average person's mouth.

"Each person has a unique complement of mouth fungi," says Strausbaugh. "We know that people are genetically predisposed to things. So, is it possible that we are predisposed to different communities of fungi?

"The interesting thing here is the potential for predictive ability," Strausbaugh adds. "Can we potentially come up with a set of biomarkers that could predict whether a person is at risk for fungal infections?"

The next step in the group's research, says Patricia Diaz, professor of at the UConn Health Center and the project's director, is to look at how the oral fungal community changes over time in people undergoing chemotherapy treatments, and track whether changes are related to the development of oral lesions. These results could help scientists and medical professionals better predict patients' risk of oral infection.

"Some of these normally harmless fungi, given the right circumstances, could cause mischief," says Strausbaugh. "There is concern about fungi as emerging human pathogens, especially in immunocompromised people, infants, and older adults."

Dupuy, a fifth-year Ph.D. student, says that the project has given her a perspective on how genomics can interact with people's daily lives.

"I always had a vision of helping people by using genetics," she says. "This project has opened my mind to what genetics and genomics can really do."

This research appears in the March 10 issue of PLOS One.

Explore further: Mold fungi can cure plants

Related Stories

Mold fungi can cure plants

November 1, 2011

We know them from our garden, from damp cellars or from the fridge - mold fungi can be found almost everywhere. Their success is due to their remarkable versatility:  depending on external conditions, they can choose ...

Discovering common fungi

March 1, 2012

Fungi are among the most diverse and understudied organisms, so major evolutionary branches composed of hundreds of species are still being discovered.

Fungi offers new clues in asthma fight

February 19, 2013

Hundreds of tiny fungal particles found in the lungs of asthma sufferers could offer new clues in the development of new treatments, according to a team of Cardiff University scientists.

Attacking fungal infection, one of the world's major killers

December 23, 2013

Ask someone what the term 'fungus' brings to mind, and chances are it will be an image of something that smells or looks disgusting. Ask David Perlin, executive director of the Public Health Research Institute at Rutgers ...

Unlocking the genetic secrets of wheat

March 4, 2014

Scientists at Swinburne University of Technology have discovered how wheat seedlings defend themselves against bacteria, opening the door for food and health applications.

Recommended for you

Basic research fuels advanced discovery

August 26, 2016

Clinical trials and translational medicine have certainly given people hope and rapid pathways to cures for some of mankind's most troublesome diseases, but now is not the time to overlook the power of basic research, says ...

New avenue for understanding cause of common diseases

August 25, 2016

A ground-breaking Auckland study could lead to discoveries about many common diseases such as diabetes, cancer and dementia. The new finding could also illuminate the broader role of the enigmatic mitochondria in human development.

New method creates endless supply of kidney precursor cells

August 25, 2016

Salk Institute scientists have discovered the holy grail of endless youthfulness—at least when it comes to one type of human kidney precursor cell. Previous attempts to maintain cultures of the so-called nephron progenitor ...

Strict diet combats rare progeria aging disorders

August 25, 2016

Mice with a severe aging disease live three times longer if they eat thirty percent less. Moreover, they age much healthier than mice that eat as much as they want. These are findings of a joint study being published today ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.