The increased industrialization and urbanization since World War II has co-occurred with a marked increase in chronic inflammatory disorders. The hygiene hypothesis (or microbial deprivation hypothesis) proposes that reduced contact with microorganisms in the first years of life is an important factor in the dysregulation of the education of our immune system and this rise in inflammation. In addition, an increase in air pollution appears to play an important modulatory role in the pathogenesis of these diseases. Pro-inflammatory capacities of particulate matter and other air pollutants have been shown, but the underlying mechanisms are not well understood.
The research team of Sarah Lebeer aims to gain more insights in the modulatory role of environmental microbes and air pollution on human health, by the application of molecular microbiological and immunological techniques. Hereto, the research is currently focusing on three major research themes:
- A first major topic focuses on the immunomodulatory capacity, anti-pathogenic action and other beneficial capacities of lactobacilli, present in fermented foods, pharmaceutical supplements, human gastro-intestinal tract, vagina and nasopharyngeal capacity. Hereby, special attention goes to the cell surface molecules of lactobacilli (proteins, lipoteichoic acid, polysaccharides, glycoproteins, pili, etc.) and their interaction with immune receptors.
- A second topic investigates environmental microbes present in the air and on plants (phyllosphere bacteria) in relation to air pollution and the hygiene hypothesis. Hereby, special attention goes to the development of molecular methods to monitor the diversity and activity of these microbes (bioremediation, immunomodulation, etc.).
- A third topic focuses on the monitoring of microbial endotoxins (such as lipopolysaccharides) in relation to air pollution. Hereby, special attention goes to the development of specific bioassays (e.g. in cell lines).