Measuring the localization of microbes within their in vivo context is an essential step in revealing the functional relationships between the microbiota and the vertebrate gut. The spatial landscape of the gut microbiota is tightly controlled by physical features - intestinal mucus, crypts, and folds - and is affected by host-controlled properties such as pH, oxygen availability, and immune factors. These properties limit the ability of commensal microbes and pathogens alike to colonize the gut stably. At the micron-scale, microbial organization determines the close-range interactions between different microbes as well as the interactions between microbes and their host. These interactions then affect large-scale organ function and host health
This protocol enables the visualization of the gut microbiota spatial organization from distances between cells to organ-wide scales. The method is based on fixing gut tissues while preserving intestinal structure and mucus properties. The fixed samples are then embedded, sectioned, and stained to highlight specific bacterial species through fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH). Host features, such as mucus and host cell components, are labeled with fluorescently labeled lectins. Finally, the stained sections are imaged using a confocal microscope utilizing tile-scan imaging at high magnification to bridge the micron to centimeter length scales. This type of imaging can be applied to intestinal sections from animal models and biopsies from human tissues to determine the biogeography of the microbiota in the gut in health and disease.