The interactions of staphylococci and skin in health and disease

The Jackson Laboratory's Julia Oh speaking at the JAX Healthcare Forum in 2018. The Jackson Laboratory's Julia Oh. Photo credit: Jared Skolnick.

Julia Oh, Ph.D., profiles the bacteria populating the skin, including understudied Staphylococcus subtypes. Supported by a recent NIH grant, she will investigate how these microbes interact with skin cells and affect the skin's immune and barrier functions.

Microscopic but mighty

Home to a bustling ecosystem of microbial life, the skin, digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems harbor a diverse array of bacteria. One category of bacteria, Staphylococcus, is prevalent on the skin surface, playing numerous roles in skin health and disease. Some types, such as S. epidermidis, largely keep the skin healthy by moderating immune reactions and promoting balance. Others, such as S. aureus, can be asymptomatic colonizers or opportunistic pathogens under certain circumstances.

Defining our diverse microbial network

The role of some Staphylococcus species such as S. epidermidis and S. aureus has been better characterized, but the role of other cousins such as S. hominis, capitis, and haemolyticus, while prevalent in healthy and diseased skin, has not. At The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), Associate Professor Julia Oh, Ph.D., seeks to extensively survey skin staphylococci in the context of healthy and diseased skin. For example, skin samples from patients with congenital ichthyosis (a group of skin disorders characterized by dry, scaly or thickened skin) showed S. capitis dominating, while healthy skin favored S. epidermidis and S. hominis. Samples from those with eczema associated with immunodeficiencies were characterized by the presence of non-aureus staphylococci, including S. haemolyticus. Oh hypothesizes that the different Staphylococcus species strains play important roles in altering the inflammatory state of the skin and the skin barrier.  

Comprehending the full scope of the skin microbiome

By extensively collecting, sequencing and comparing staphylococcal isolates on 3D human reconstructed skin equivalents (RHEs), the Oh lab has examined the skin’s response to the colonization of 180 different species and strains of Staphylococcus, uncovering surprising differences in the impact of these microbes on cells of the uppermost layers of the skin. Receiving support from a new R01 grant funded by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, Oh will continue to investigate the underlying microbial and host mechanisms by which these staphylococci drive skin responses and overall skin balance using a suite of cutting-edge ‘omics technologies.