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Sex Differences in the Gut Microbiome Drive Hormone-Dependent Regulation of Autoimmunity

Science  01 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6123, pp. 1084-1088
DOI: 10.1126/science.1233521

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Mighty Male Microbes

Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to an individual's susceptibility to autoimmune disease, but the specific environmental influences are not well characterized. Markle et al. (p. 1084, published online 17 January; see the Perspective by Flak et al.) explored how microbial factors, in particular the gut microbiota, influence susceptibility to type 1 diabetes in mice. In the non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse model of type 1 diabetes, female mice are significantly more susceptible to disease than males; however, this difference was not apparent under germ-free conditions. Transfer of cecal contents from male NOD mice to female NOD mice prior to disease onset protected against pancreatic islet inflammation, autoantibody production, and the development of diabetes and was associated with increased testosterone in female mice. Blocking androgen receptor activity abrogated protection. Thus, the microbiota may be able to regulate sex hormones and influence an individual's susceptibility to autoimmunity.

Abstract

Microbial exposures and sex hormones exert potent effects on autoimmune diseases, many of which are more prevalent in women. We demonstrate that early-life microbial exposures determine sex hormone levels and modify progression to autoimmunity in the nonobese diabetic (NOD) mouse model of type 1 diabetes (T1D). Colonization by commensal microbes elevated serum testosterone and protected NOD males from T1D. Transfer of gut microbiota from adult males to immature females altered the recipient's microbiota, resulting in elevated testosterone and metabolomic changes, reduced islet inflammation and autoantibody production, and robust T1D protection. These effects were dependent on androgen receptor activity. Thus, the commensal microbial community alters sex hormone levels and regulates autoimmune disease fate in individuals with high genetic risk.

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