Finlay Lab

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Child undernutrition is a global health issue associated with a high burden of infectious disease. Undernourished children display an overabundance of intestinal pathogens and pathobionts, and these bacteria induce enteric dysfunction in undernourished mice; however, the cause of their overgrowth remains poorly defined. Here, we show that disease-inducing human isolates of Enterobacteriaceae and Bacteroidales spp. are capable of multi-species symbiotic cross-feeding, resulting in synergistic growth of a mixed community in vitro. Growth synergy occurs uniquely under malnourished conditions limited in protein and iron: in this context, Bacteroidales spp. liberate diet- and mucin-derived sugars and Enterobacteriaceae spp. enhance the bioavailability of iron. Analysis of human microbiota datasets reveals that Bacteroidaceae and Enterobacteriaceae are strongly correlated in undernourished children, but not in adequately nourished children, consistent with a diet-dependent growth synergy in the human gut. Together these data suggest that dietary cross-feeding fuels the overgrowth of pathobionts in undernutrition.