How Mucus Tames Microbes
by Dr. Francis Collins/NIH Director’s Blog
Most of us think of mucus as little more than slimy and somewhat yucky stuff that’s easily ignored until you come down with a cold like the one I just had. But, when it comes to our health, there’s much more to mucus than you might think.
Mucus covers the moist surfaces of the human body, including the eyes, nostrils, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. In fact, the average person makes more than a liter of mucus each day! It houses trillions of microbes and serves as a first line of defense against the subset of those microorganisms that cause infections. For these reasons, NIH-funded researchers, led by Katharina Ribbeck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, are out to gain a greater understanding of the biology of healthy mucus—and then possibly use that knowledge to develop new therapeutics.
Ribbeck’s team used a scanning electron microscope to take the image of mucus you see above. You’ll notice right away that mucus doesn’t look like simple slime at all. In fact, if you could zoom into this complex web, you’d discover it’s made up of mucin proteins and glycans, which are sugar molecules that resemble bottle brushes.
Ribbeck and her colleagues recently discovered that the glycans in healthy mucus play a long-overlooked role in “taming” bacteria that might make us ill . This work builds on their previous findings that mucus interferes with bacterial behavior, preventing these bugs from attaching to surfaces and communicating with each other .
In their new study, published in Nature Microbiology, Ribbeck, lead author Kelsey Wheeler, and their colleagues studied mucus and its interactions Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This bacterium is a common cause of serious lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis or compromised immune systems.
The researchers found that in the presence of glycans, P. aeruginosa was rendered less harmful and infectious. The bacteria also produced fewer toxins. The findings show that it isn’t just that microbes get trapped in a tangled web within mucus, but rather that glycans have a special ability to moderate the bugs’ behavior. The researchers also have evidence of similar interactions between mucus and other microorganisms, such as those responsible for yeast infections.
The new study highlights an intriguing strategy to tame, rather than kill, bacteria to manage infections. In fact, Ribbeck views mucus and its glycans as a therapeutic gold mine. She hopes to apply what she’s learned to develop artificial mucus as an anti-microbial therapeutic for use inside and outside the body. Not bad for a substance that you might have thought was nothing more than slimy stuff.
 Mucin glycans attenuate the virulence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa in infection. Wheeler KM, Cárcamo-Oyarce G, Turner BS, Dellos-Nolan S, Co JY, Lehoux S, Cummings RD, Wozniak DJ, Ribbeck K. Nat Microbiol. 2019 Oct 14.
 Mucins trigger dispersal of Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms. Co JY, Cárcamo-Oyarce, Billings N, Wheeler KM, Grindy SC, Holten-Andersen N, Ribbeck K. NPJ Biofilms Microbiomes. 2018 Oct 10;4:23.
Cystic Fibrosis (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)
Video: Chemistry in Action—Katharina Ribbeck (YouTube)
Katharina Ribbeck (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases