Breastmilk varies between mothers – affects microbiome of infant

Chemical structure of fucose molecule

Chemical structure of fucose molecule

We know that breastmilk is crucial to the development of a healthy infant’s microbiome.  It contains many oligosaccharides that cannot be digested by the infant, and whose primary purpose appears to be stimulating the growth of specific microbiome bugs.  There are, however, differences between new mothers’ milk.  For instance, some mothers cannot produce 2′-fucosylated oligosaccharides, which are oligosaccharides that have a fucose sugar on the end.  David Mills and his team at UC Davis recently investigated how the microbiomes of infants differed based on the presence or absence of fucosylated glycans in the milk that they drank.  They published their work in the journal Microbiome last week.

Forty four infants who were fed breast milk had their microbiomes measured throughout the first 120 days of their lives.  Thirty two of these infants were fed milk from woman with fucosylation ability (secretors), and twelve were from women without the fucosylation ability (non-secretors).  When the researchers investigated the contents of the milk they found that it varied in many ways, besides fucosylation.  For example, those women that did not fucosylate appeared instead to increase their monosaccharide sialylation, a sugar that has been linked to C. difficile infection.  When the scientists compared the infants’ microbiomes in the two groups they discovered that secretor-fed infants achieved higher levels of Bifidobacteria and Bacteroides, and achieved these levels more quickly than non-secretor-fed infants.  Instead, the non-secretor-fed infants had relatively higher levels of Enterobacteria, Clostridia, and Streptococci.

These differences may be important to the infants’ developments.  For example, Bifidobacteria in the gut is associated with lower gut permeability and less inflammation.  Also, Bifidobacteria and Bacteroides are large contributors to the production of short chain fatty acids and lactate, which have each been associated with gut health time and time again.  A full 20% of the U.S. population is non-secretors, and it would be interesting to see if any epidemiologically significant differences exist between the two groups into adulthood.  In either case, in the future it may be worth considering supplementing infant milk with fucosylated oligosaccharides if the lack of fucosylation does turn out to be detrimental to the baby.

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