Research – Don’t freak out: These are the microbes living on your tongue

Science Mag

STEVEN WILBERT AND GARY BORISY/FORSYTH INSTITUTE

Microbes are everywhere in our guts—and in our mouths. Now, a new study reveals our tongue-dwelling companions aren’t all mixed together randomly; instead, they seem to prefer living close to their own kind, separating out into distinct groups based on their species.

Researchers started by scraping the tongues of 21 healthy human volunteers. Then, they used fluorescent tags to identify specific groups of bacteria, some of which produce nutrients for us, so they could see exactly where each one lived on the tongue’s surface. Without exception, the bacteria formed tight-knit, well-defined clusters of the same species, the researchers report today in Cell Reports.

The clusters (above) resemble a microbial rainbow under the microscope. For instance, Actinomyces bacteria, in red, grow close to the epithelial tissue of the tongue, shown in gray, while Rothia bacteria, in cyan, form long patches between other communities. Streptococcus, in green, form a thin crust on the edge of the tongue and slender veins in the interior. By looking at the images, the researchers could guess at how these colonies establish themselves and grow over time.

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