Researchers have discovered that synthetic mucus may open up new roads in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that by studying and replicating mucus’ natural ability to control pathogenic bacteria, scientists may be able to find new methods to combat infections.
“I am so excited about mucus because I am convinced it can help us find new strategies for protecting us from infections, in particular those that relate to an overgrowth of harmful microbes,” Katharina Ribbeck, professor of tissue engineering at MIT, said in a statement. “My lab and others around the world have begun to engineer mucin-inspired polymers and [synthetic] mucus.
“We want to use these engineered polymers to control problematic pathogens inside and outside of the body and to stop the growing threat of antibiotic resistant microbes,” she added.
Mucus is the gel that lines all wet epithelia in the body including the eyes, lungs and digestive tracts and has evolved to protect humans from pathogenic invasion.
The average human being produces about a gallon’s worth of mucus daily to sustain a protective coating on more than 2,000 square feet of internal surface area.
There are also trillions of microbes that live inside the mucus that line the digestive tract.
“Over millions of years, the mucus has evolved the ability to keep a number of these problematic pathogenic microbes in check, preventing them from causing damage,” Ribbeck said. “But the mucus does not kill the microbes. Instead, it tames them.”
The researchers investigated how the sugar-coated molecules that form the mucus gel called mucins influence the makeup of the internal microbial communities by constraining the formation of multicellular assemblies by the microbes.
The researchers grew two types of bacteria—streptococcus mutans that form in cavities and streptococcus sanguinis, a bacterium associated with healthy oral conditions.
The more harmful streptococcus mutans quickly outgrew Streptococcus sanguinis when they were grown together outside of saliva or mucin-containing media but when grown in the presence of MUC5B—the mucin found in saliva—the two bacterium established a more even balance.
According to Ribbeck, this suggests that mucin could be instrumental in supporting greater bacterial diversity.
“We conclude from these findings that MUC5B may help prevent diseases such as dental caries [cavities] by reducing the potential that a single harmful species will dominate,” Ribbeck said.
The researchers will now investigate the potential role of mucins in maintaining microbial diversity in other mucosal surfaces throughout the body.