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PLOS Pathogens Bridges Communities with Polymicrobial Research

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As PLOS Pathogens announces a call for papers on co- and polymicrobial infections and diseases, the Editorial team highlights the importance of this work to our community. We aim to focus specifically on work that spans fields and requires researchers to work across disciplines, which is essential to PLOS Pathogens’ mission of bridging scientific communities

PLOS Pathogens reflects not only the full breadth of research on bacteria, fungi, parasites, prions and viruses, but also a multidisciplinary community of researchers dedicated to studying these pathogens. In the journal’s first Editorial written over 10 years ago, founding Editor-in-Chief John A.T. Young states that the journal launches at an “important time, when the pathogen research community has much to learn from each other and to share with the global community.”

The pathogen community still has much to learn from each other, and for this reason, PLOS Pathogens presents a call for papers on co- and polymicrobial infections and diseases. Even though this has always been central to our mission, we reinforce our encouragement of researchers, especially those early in their careers, to engage in work that spans research fields and subsequently bridges scientific communities. When scientists work across disciplines, they unlock important questions that they may not have asked on their own, subsequently leading to novel discoveries.

Editors Laura J. Knoll and Glenn Rall contextualize this initiative in an Editorial, Development of Complex Models to Study Co-and Polymicrobial Infections and Diseases, discussing the benefits and challenges to working across fields. In addition, the journal has curated a collection, Bridging Communities: Co- and Polymicrobial Infections, that highlights some exemplary PLOS Pathogens Research Articles that embody this mission. These articles demonstrate the diversity of research on this theme, the unique approaches taken by researchers, the value of these contributions to the field, and the substantive mechanistic insights they can reveal.

We asked authors of the work featured in our Bridging Communities: Co- and Polymicrobial Infections collection to comment on the benefits and challenges of their work, as well as the lessons learned from bridging scientific communities. From the many answers, some obvious themes arise.


P. aeruginosa ΔwspR shows loss of swarm repression in the presence of ethanol. Image Credit: Chen AI, et al. (2014)
P. aeruginosa ΔwspR shows loss of swarm repression in the presence of ethanol.
Image Credit: Chen AI, et al. (2014)

Cross-field collaboration makes for more comprehensive scientists

“I learn a tremendous amount of science by reading papers from other fields and am often inspired by these studies to ask a different question or try a different approach. It prevents me from developing, what I call, scientific myopia.”

“Studying co-infections and multiple microbial interactions requires multidisciplinary collaboration between e.g. immunologists, microbiologists and virologists. Moreover, in order to understand their consequences for health and disease, collaboration is required between fundamental scientists and clinicians involved in translational research, which tends to drag both out of their traditional comfort zones.”

“Understanding complex interactions between species requires expertise in diverse areas, and collaborating with researchers in other fields has helped us make important scientific discoveries by applying different methodologies.”

“Working with experts in the field of malaria not only ensured that the most appropriate experiments were performed, but demanded that we consider secondary variables when interpreting our results. In our experience bridging these two areas of expertise was not only a small step towards modeling slightly more realistic biological scenarios and establishing an infrastructure for the transfer of knowledge between our communities, but may have made us better scientists in the process.”

“The study of multi-parasite communities requires a combination of different approaches, ranging from the analysis of the finest mechanistic details to the holistic view of this intricate system of multifaceted interactions. The latter can be adequately unraveled only by an accurate collection of field and lab data, effectively supported by theoretical modeling. We tried to combine different scientific expertise, in order to cover these complementary research areas.”

“In general, collaborations that involve a variety of talents can promote positive criticism and provide different perspectives to approach outstanding scientific problems. Indeed, this multi-disciplinary approach has led to significant advances in the bio-medical field.”


Co- and polymicrobial research has real-world applications

“Understanding how and why HSV-2 increases the risk of HIV infection may help shed more light on the mechanisms of HIV sexual transmission, which per-se is a relatively rare event. However, HSV-2 is not the only STI associated with increased risk of HIV acquisition and more can be learned studying the interaction of other mucosal pathogens and HIV. These studies can help design prevention strategies that work in the context of co-infection with more than one pathogen (a very common circumstance especially in places at high risk of HIV transmission such as Sub-saharan Africa) and help understand how the 2 diseases can impact each other’s evolution and therapeutic efficacy. Therefore, especially in the case of STIs, it is important to design animal models that allow the study of infection with multiple pathogens and more complex, real-life situations.”

“Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and P. falciparum malaria have been associated with endemic Burkitt’s lymphoma for decades. During this time, we have come to understand a great deal about the oncogenic potential of EBV but the malaria connection remained unknown. Our development of a model for how EBV maintains a persistent infection finally also provided a framework to postulate a role for malaria.  By collaborating with experts in the malaria field we were able to demonstrate in vitro the mechanism by which EBV and P. falciparum interact to produce lymphoma and confirm it in clinic samples. This is important because for the first time we and our collaborators could explain how EBV and malaria co-operate in the genesis of an important childhood cancer and suggests that intervention against either EBV or malaria should result in a dramatic decrease in the incidence of this tumor.”

“As a basic researcher, understanding the disease from the clinical perspective opens avenues of investigations not obvious from the more academic/research view. Insights from my clinical collaborator prompted us to investigate polymicrobial interactions in cystic fibrosis. Although this is an accepted view of cystic fibrosis airway infections now, they were heretical at the time as many reviewers of our earlier papers pointed out!”

ImageStream analysis of c-myc positive tonsil GC B cells Image Credit: Torgbor C, et al. (2014)
ImageStream analysis of c-myc positive tonsil GC B cells
Image Credit: Torgbor C, et al. (2014)


This work has challenges, but yields important discoveries

“We benefit greatly from interacting with two different research communities. There are many common themes in biology, and we learn a lot about one species by studying another in the same environment.”

“We have learned how interesting and challenging it is to study other microbes. From our work, we came to understand how microbes with very different life styles (the protozoan P. falciparum and the herpesvirus Epstein Barr virus) can nevertheless intersect in their pathways to pathogenesis and ultimately that such intersections can produce catastrophic results, in our case a common lymphoma in African children.”

“As both an infectious disease and oncology specialist, I have focused on understanding the pathogenesis of bacterial and fungal infections in cancer and stem cell transplant patients. Many of these serious infections are thought to originate from the gut. While much of the gut microbiome research has focused on bacteria, and I myself was originally trained in bacterial pathogenesis, there is mounting evidence that bacteria can modulate gut fungal colonization, viruses affect bacteria, and on and on… I strongly believe that exploring and studying polymicrobial and inter-kingdom interactions and infections will be pivotal for moving our understanding of human physiology and disease forward.”

“It becomes more and more obvious that diverse pathogens excite different immune responses which will affect the response and outcome of subsequent co-infections. In our study we investigated the impact of a chronic helminth infection on a bacterial induced sepsis…Results from our study demonstrate that chronic filariae infected mice have a milder E. coli-induced hypothermia, which was accompanied by a reduced bacterial burden and inflammation…A better understanding of the interplay of such co-infections is essential, as there is a strong effort to eliminate helminth infections…highlighting the necessity for interdisciplinary studies that will lead to a better understanding of the interactions of diverse pathogens and the immune system.”


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