Scientific reports

Oral iron acutely elevates bacterial growth in human serum.

PMID 26593732


Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide and routine supplementation is standard policy for pregnant mothers and children in most low-income countries. However, iron lies at the center of host-pathogen competition for nutritional resources and recent trials of iron administration in African and Asian children have resulted in significant excesses of serious adverse events including hospitalizations and deaths. Increased rates of malaria, respiratory infections, severe diarrhea and febrile illnesses of unknown origin have all been reported, but the mechanisms are unclear. We here investigated the ex vivo growth characteristics of exemplar sentinel bacteria in adult sera collected before and 4 h after oral supplementation with 2 mg/kg iron as ferrous sulfate. Escherichia coli, Yersinia enterocolitica and Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium (all gram-negative bacteria) and Staphylococcus epidermidis (gram-positive) showed markedly elevated growth in serum collected after iron supplementation. Growth rates were very strongly correlated with transferrin saturation (p < 0.0001 in all cases). Growth of Staphylococcus aureus, which preferentially scavenges heme iron, was unaffected. These data suggest that even modest oral supplements with highly soluble (non-physiological) iron, as typically used in low-income settings, could promote bacteremia by accelerating early phase bacterial growth prior to the induction of immune defenses.