Airway microbial communities, smoking and asthma in a general population sample

Elena M Turek, Michael J Cox, Michael Hunter, Jennie Hui, Phillip James, Saffron A G Willis-Owen, Leah Cuthbertson, Alan James, A William Musk, Miriam F Moffatt, William O C M Cookson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: Normal airway microbial communities play a central role in respiratory health but are poorly characterized. Cigarette smoking is the dominant global environmental influence on lung function, and asthma has become the most prevalent chronic respiratory disease worldwide. Both conditions have major microbial components that are incompletely defined.

METHODS: We investigated airway bacterial communities in a general population sample of 529 Australian adults. Posterior oropharyngeal swabs were analyzed by sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene. The microbiota were characterized according to their prevalence, abundance and network memberships.

FINDINGS: The microbiota were similar across the general population, and were strongly organized into co-abundance networks. Smoking was associated with diversity loss, negative effects on abundant taxa, profound alterations to network structure and expansion of Streptococcus spp. By contrast, the asthmatic microbiota were selectively affected by an increase in Neisseria spp. and by reduced numbers of low abundance but prevalent organisms.

INTERPRETATION: Our study shows that the healthy airway microbiota in this population were contained within a highly structured ecosystem, suggesting balanced relationships between the microbiome and human host factors. The marked abnormalities in smokers may contribute to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. The narrow spectrum of abnormalities in asthmatics encourages investigation of damaging and protective effects of specific bacteria.

FUNDING: The study was funded by the Asmarley Trust and a Wellcome Joint Senior Investigator Award to WOCC and MFM (WT096964MA and WT097117MA). The Busselton Healthy Ageing Study is supported by the Government of Western Australia (Office of Science, Department of Health) the City of Busselton, and private donations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103538
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


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