What happens to dietary fiber after we eat it?

Complex carbohydrates from dietary fiber, such as from fruits and vegetables, are, with some exceptions, largely indigestible to normal human metabolism.  These polysaccharides though, form the basis for much of the gut microbiome’s nutrition because they pass into the colon largely unaffected.  For this reason, many scientists are considering complex carbs as prebiotics, or foods that can manipulate the microbiome to improve health.  At this point in time, the fate of many prebiotics in the gut, and the mechanisms by which they are broken down and shared by the microbiome bacteria, are still largely unknown.  Last week a paper in Nature Communications investigated this question, and measured the breakdown of complex xylose molecules in the gut.

The researchers discovered that Bacteroidetes have many different enzymes to break down complex xylans, and regulate and induce different ones based on the type of xylan, e.g. whether or not it has many long chains stemming from its backbone.  They then discovered that these enzymes work in conjunction with one another to break down highly complex structures into smaller oligosaccharides.  These breakdown products are often released into the lumen of the gut where other bacteria can feed on them.  As it turns out, the initial xylan is most important to determining which smaller xylans are produced by Bacteroidetes, and therefore which other bacteria will benefit from the xylan metabolites.  Taken together, this study illustrates the complex ecology of the gut, with some bacteria breaking down large carbohydrates into smaller pieces, and other breaking those down into even smaller pieces, until finally a xylose monosaccharide is broken down into a short chained fatty acid.

Overall, this study lends itself to the value of prebiotics.  Clearly, the food we eat affects the composition of the microbiome.  We are now learning the mechanisms by which this happens, through a hierarchical food chain in the gut.  Once these are completely understood scientists should be able to produce foods that will controllably alter the populations of the gut, which could lead to methods to combat a variety of diseases.

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