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Gut bacteria are stronger together when it comes to preventing infectious diseases.

When a large, diverse community of gut bacteria compete with pathogens for nutrients, the pathogens may not have enough fuel to colonize and invade the body, according to a new study in Science.

The more microbes there are, the more different nutrients they’re likely to eat, increasing the chances of nutrient overlap with the pathogen. The greater the overlap, the better the host is protected, the study found.

“The nutrients available to the pathogen are limited,” said lead study author Frances Spragge, a researcher in the department of biochemistry, University of Oxford, Oxfordshire. “So, its invasion is blocked.”

It makes sense, said Thomas Schmidt, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. (Schmidt was not involved in the study.) “It’s kind of no surprise that competition for resources is what is providing the colonization resistance,” Schmidt said. “But we didn’t have evidence that that was the case.”

The study is among the first to take a systematic approach to addressing competition between pathogens and specific host microbes, Schmidt said. It’s a step toward identifying microbes that could be useful in treating infections.

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