"People thought that the esophagus wasn't hospitable to bacteria," says Martin J. Blaser, M.D., Frederick King Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine, and Professor of Microbiology, an author of the study. Bacteria were believed to move through the esophagus, the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach, as food-borne passengers on route to the stomach.
But the new study in the March 23 print issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that bacteria do indeed live in the esophagus, and these microbes are a diverse bunch. "This study provides evidence for the first time that there are indigenous microbes in the human esophagus," says Zhiheng Pei, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pathology and Medicine, the study's lead author.
The findings may have profound implications for treating diseases of the esophagus, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which afflicts some 10 million people in the United States. Chronic inflammation associated with GERD can lead to the development of a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus. If disease-causing bacteria are ever found in the esophagus, it may one day be possible to treat these diseases with antibiotics.
While bacteria in the esophagus will be news to most people, the NYU researchers had suspected that the food tube harbored microorganisms. After all, bacteria have now been found in deep-sea vents, hot springs, volcanoes, and other extremely harsh environments. "By comparison, the esophagus seemed much more hospitable," says Dr. Blaser.
In human biology, too, there have been surprises concerning bacteria. For many
Contact: Pamela McDonnell
New York University Medical Center and School of Medicine