Presented by University of Oxford

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Hands-on at this exhibit

  • Build a giant gut
  • Check out your own bacteria under the microscope
  • Be a pathologist for the day - can you spot the inflamed colons?

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Further reading

Bollrath, J. & Powrie, F. 2013 Controlling the frontier: regulatory T-cells and intestinal homeostasis. Seminars in Immunology 25, 352-7

Blumberg, R. & Powrie, F. 2012 Microbiota, disease, and back to health: a metastable journey. Science Translational Medicine 4, 137rv7

Kirchberger, S. et al. 2013 Innate lymphoid cells sustain colon cancer through production of interleukin-22 in a mouse model. Journal of Experimental Medicine 210, 917-31

Our bodies are in constant contact with the environment and are thus exposed to a variety of micro-organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Astonishingly, the human gut contains about 100 trillion microbial cells; this means that they outnumber our human cells by at least ten to one! Normally, these do not cause disease, and are actually essential for our physiology: they synthesise vitamins, provide nutrients by degrading complex food molecules, and help protect us from harmful pathogens. A peaceful coexistence between us and our microbes has evolved over millions of years, and disruption of this relationship lies at the heart of major human illnesses.

 
Astonishingly, the human gut contains about 100 trillion microbial cells! Learn about the peaceful coexistence between us and our microbes and how disruption of this relationship lies at the heart of major human illnesses.

This exhibit will explore the science behind the interactions between gut microbes and our immune system. Our immune system is designed to recognize and destroy cells that are not our own. So why is our body not constantly at war with the microbes that call us home?

Crucially, our immune system can also recognize friend from foe, so we repel invasion by harmful microbes but allow useful ones to live with us peacefully. Sometimes this balance is disrupted for diverse reasons including dietary changes, failure to neutralise pathogens, or genetic susceptibility in our own cells. When this occurs, destructive immune responses can spiral out of control, leading to illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD is a chronic disease of the gastrointestinal tract that involves inappropriate inflammation and tissue damage that is debilitating and currently incurable. In turn, IBD can increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Understanding our microbial relationships and what we can do to maintain their balance is therefore a major scientific focus in modern medicine.

Lead image: False-coloured scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli, a common resident of the human gut.