The systems biology of microbial infections aims at describing and analysing the confrontation of the host with bacterial and fungal pathogens. It intends to understand and to model the interaction of the host, in particular the immune system of humans or animals, with components of pathogens. This comprises experimental studies that provide spatio-temporal data from monitoring the response of host and pathogenic cells to perturbations or when interacting with each other, as well as the integrative analysis of genome-wide data from both the host and the pathogen. In perspective, the host-pathogen interaction should be described by a combination of spatio-temporal models with interacting molecular networks of the host and the pathogen. The aim is to unravel the main mechanisms of pathogenicity, to identify diagnostic biomarkers and potential drug targets, and to explore novel strategies for personalized therapy by computer simulations.
Some microorganisms are part of the normal microbial flora, existing either in a mutualistic or commensal relationship with the host. Microorganisms become pathogenic if they posses certain physiological characteristics and virulence determinants as well as capabilities for immune evasion. Despite the different pathogenesis of infections, there are several common traits:
(1) Before infection, pathogens must be able to overcome (epithelial) barriers. The infection starts by adhesion and colonization and is followed by entering of the pathogen into the host through the mucosa or (injured) skin.
(2) Next, infection arises if the pathogen multiplies and overgrows the normal microbial flora, either at the place of entrance or in deeper tissue layers or organs.
(3) After the growth phase, the pathogen damages the host’s cells, tissues and organs by producing toxins or destructive enzymes.
Thus, systems biology of microbial infection comprises all levels of the pathogen and the host’s immune system. The investigation may start with the pathogen, its adhesion and colonization at the host, its interaction with host cell types e.g. epithelia cells, dendritic cells, macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells, etc. Because infection diseases are mainly found in patients with a weakened immune system, e.g. reduced activities of immune effector cells or defects in the epithelial barriers, systems biology of infection can also start with modelling of the immune defence including innate and adaptive immunity.
Systems biological studies comprise both experimental and theoretical approaches. The experimental studies may be dedicated to reveal the relevance of certain genes or proteins in the above mentioned processes on the side of the pathogen and/or the host by applying functional and biochemical analyses based on knock-out mutants and knock- down experiments.
At the theoretical, i.e. mathematical and computational, side systems biology of microbial infection comprises:
(1) modelling of molecular mechanisms of bacterial or fungal infections,
(2) modelling of non-protective and protective immune defences against microbial pathogens to generate information for possible immune therapy approaches,
(3) modelling of infection dynamics and identification of biomarkers for diagnosis and for individualized therapy,
(4) identifying essential virulence determinants and thereby predicting potential drug targets.
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