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Utah Researchers Are Getting To Know The Fungus Among Us (In Our Guts)

A close up photo of the fungus Candida albicans.
Vader 1941
The fungus Candida albicans, a type of yeast, lives in the gut microbiota and plays a role in health and gastrointestinal disease. The scanning electron micrograph shows the yeast in its pathogenic, hyphal form.

Your gut microbiome is composed of more than bacteria — a less populous, but still important, resident is fungi. Many people’s lower digestive tract is home to the yeast Candida albicans, the species implicated in vaginal yeast infections and oral thrush. But new research published in the scientific journal Nature this month suggests that Candida in the gut may also be related to severe cases of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.

Candida comes in multiple forms: a single-celled, rounded yeast, and a multicellular, branched version, known as the hyphal form. The hyphal form is capable of invading other cells, and is associated with tissue damage, like that of IBD.

The team, led by researchers from the University of Utah, writes that our immune system reacts to Candida by targeting a protein found in that second, invasive state. Conversely, our bodies seem to leave the rounded, yeast form alone.

Kyla Ost of the University of Utah told Science Friday that the relationship is complex. “These antibody responses are altering or sculpting the biology of the Candida population to suppress the bad form of Candida within the gut,” she said.

Ost said that the relationship appears to be mutualistic — that is, the fungi themselves benefit from being managed in this way. “I like to think of it as a communication...that the Candida and the host are sort of moving toward a mutualistic interaction,” she said.

Better understanding what drives these distinct responses may provide clues to developing a vaccine that could help people with candida-linked health problems.

She explains the nuanced relationship she and her colleagues uncovered, and how uncovering more about gut fungi may bring new insights into the relationship between our microbial communities and our health.

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