Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed 98:F286-F290 doi:10.1136/archdischild-2012-302134
  • Leading article

Gut microbiota in preterm infants: assessment and relevance to health and disease

  1. Stephen Paul Cummings3
  1. 1Newcastle Neonatal Service, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, UK
  2. 2Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  3. 3School of Life Sciences, University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  1. Correspondance to Dr Janet Elizabeth Berrington, Newcastle Neonatal Service, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Queen Victoria Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE 1 4LP, UK; janet.berrington{at}
  • Accepted 30 July 2012
  • Published Online First 25 September 2012


In adults the microbial community of the gut (microbiota) influences a diverse range of health outcomes from obesity, diabetes, asthma and allergy to seemingly ‘remote’ diseases like Parkinson's disease.1 In preterm infants, establishment of the gut microbiota is also of importance for key morbidities like late onset sepsis (LOS) and necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), both significant causes of mortality.2 Many episodes of LOS are with gut derived organisms3 and changes in the intestinal barrier contribute to both LOS and NEC. The gut microbiota are key to developing barrier function, integrity, and mucosal and systemic immune function. They also ‘educate’ the gut associated lymphoid tissue, allowing the establishment of a ‘tolerant’ state between microbiota and the immune system, affecting intestinal function including tight junction structure and immune function.4–6 Patterns of initial colonisation affect host metabolic function: fat deposition, circulating leptin levels, and insulin resistance.6

In the preterm gut structural and immunological immaturity contribute to inflammatory necrosis and abnormal bacterial colonisation (dysbioses). This may result in decreased microbial diversity and an increased inflammatory response exacerbated by an immature innate immune response that increases the risk of diseases like NEC or LOS. An improved understanding of the microbiota of infants cared for in neonatal intensive care, and how this is affected by current practices may allow clinicians to promote more ‘healthy’ gut microbiota patterns, and may be associated with reductions in mortality and improvements in long term outcomes.7

What factors associated with preterm birth affect the gut microbiota?

Early differences in delivery mode and care alter the development of the gut microbiota. Vaginally delivered term infants acquire their gut microbiota from maternal exposures (genital, stool, skin and breast milk flora) and the wider environment. In contrast, preterm infants are more commonly delivered by caesarean section, and have additional ‘risks and exposures’: antenatal and postnatal antibiotics, infection control measures …

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