Early Life Inoculation With Adult-Derived Microbiota Accelerates Maturation of Intestinal Microbiota and Enhances NK Cell Activation in Broiler Chickens

Nathalie Meijerink, Jannigje G. Kers, Francisca C. Velkers, Daphne A. van Haarlem, David M. Lamot, Jean E. de Oliveira, Hauke Smidt, Arjan Stegeman, Victor P.M.G. Rutten, Christine A. Jansen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Studies in mammals, including chickens, have shown that the development of the immune system is affected by interactions with intestinal microbiota. Early life microbial colonization may affect the development of innate and adaptive immunity and may contribute to lasting effects on health and resilience of broiler chickens. We inoculated broiler chickens with adult-derived-microbiota (AM) to investigate their effects on intestinal microbiota composition and natural killer (NK) cells, amongst other immune cells. We hypothesized that AM inoculation directly upon hatch (day 0) would induce an alteration in microbiota composition shortly after hatch, and subsequently affect (subsets of) intestinal NK cells and their activation. Microbiota composition of caecal and ileal content of chickens of 1, 3, 7, 14, 21, and 35 days of age was assessed by sequencing of 16S ribosomal RNA gene amplicons. In parallel, subsets and activation of intestinal NK cells were analyzed by flow cytometry. In caecal content of 1- and 3-day-old AM chickens, a higher alpha-diversity (Faith's phylogenetic diversity) was observed compared to control chickens, whereas ileal microbiota were unaffected. Regarding beta-diversity, caecal microbiota profiles could be clustered into three distinct community types. Cluster A represented caecal microbiota of 1-day-old AM chickens and 1- and 3-day-old control chickens. Cluster B included microbiota of seven of eight 3- and 7-day-old AM and 7-day-old control chickens, and cluster C comprised microbiota of all chickens of 14-days and older, independent of inoculation. In 3-day-old AM chickens an increase in the percentages of intestinal IL-2Rα+NK cells and activated NK cells was observed compared to control chickens of the same age. In addition, an increase in relative numbers of intestinal cytotoxic CD8αα+T cells was observed in 14- and 21-day-old AM chickens. Taken together, these results indicate that early exposure to AM shapes and accelerates the maturation of caecal microbiota, which is paralleled by an increase in IL-2Rα+NK cells and enhanced NK cell activation. The observed association between early life development of intestinal microbiota and immune system indicates possibilities to apply microbiota-targeted strategies that can accelerate maturation of intestinal microbiota and strengthen the immune system, thereby improving the health and resilience of broiler chickens.

Original languageEnglish
Article number584561
JournalFrontiers in Veterinary Science
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2020


  • avian immunology
  • innate immunity
  • intestinal microbiota
  • intraepithelial lymphocytes
  • NK cells
  • poultry


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