Despite decades of attempts to link infectious agents to preterm birth, an exact causative microbe or community of microbes remains elusive. Nonculture 16S ribosomal RNA gene sequencing suggests important racial differences and pregnancy specific changes in the vaginal microbial communities. A recent study examining the association of the vaginal microbiome and preterm birth documented important findings but was performed in a predominantly white cohort. Given the important racial differences in bacterial communities within the vagina as well as persistent racial disparities in preterm birth, it is important to examine cohorts with varied demographic compositions.
To characterize vaginal microbial community characteristics in a large, predominantly African-American, longitudinal cohort of pregnant women and test whether particular vaginal microbial community characteristics are associated with the risk for subsequent preterm birth.
This is a nested case-control study within a prospective cohort study of women with singleton pregnancies, not on supplemental progesterone, and without cervical cerclage in situ. Serial mid-vaginal swabs were obtained by speculum exam at their routine prenatal visits. Sequencing of the V1V3 region of the 16S rRNA gene was performed on the Roche 454 platform. Alpha diversity community characteristics including richness, Shannon diversity, and evenness as well as beta diversity metrics including Bray Curtis Dissimilarity and specific taxon abundance were compared longitudinally in women who delivered preterm to those who delivered at term.
A total of 77 subjects contributed 149 vaginal swabs longitudinally across pregnancy. Participants were predominantly African-American (69%) and had a preterm birth rate of 31%. In subjects with subsequent term delivery, the vaginal microbiome demonstrated stable community richness and Shannon diversity, whereas subjects with subsequent preterm delivery had significantly decreased vaginal richness, diversity, and evenness during pregnancy (P < .01). This change occurred between the first and second trimesters. Within-subject comparisons across pregnancy showed that preterm birth is associated with increased vaginal microbiome instability compared to term birth. No distinct taxa were associated with preterm birth.
In a predominantly African-American population, a significant decrease of vaginal microbial community richness and diversity is associated with preterm birth. The timing of this suppression appears early in pregnancy, between the first and second trimesters, suggesting that early gestation may be an ecologically important time for events that ordain subsequent term and preterm birth outcomes.