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Discovery Could Improve Infant Formula

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Sugar compounds in breast milk play a crucial role in the development of healthy intestinal bacteria in infants and contribute to the maturation of their immune system. In a new study prepared in collaboration between DTU and Kyoto University, Japan, the researchers present a method to identify proteins that act as transporters of nutrients from breast milk to an important group of bacteria in the intestine of the infant.

The proteins transport sugar from the breast milk, so-called oligosaccharides or HMOs, which nourish bifidobacteria associated with the development of good health.

“Our discovery makes it possible to establish a clear link between the type of sugar in breast milk and the presence of health-promoting bacteria in the intestines of infants. But the crucial thing in our research is that our method allows us to identify which sugars are best on the menu of microbiota-beneficial intestinal bacteria in breast milk, ”says Professor Maher Abou Hachem of DTU Bioengineering, who conducted the study in collaboration with Professor Takane Katayama from Kyoto University .

"Our research could be utilized by manufacturers of infant formula to synthesize new sugars that can ensure that children who are not breastfed get the same good sugars as children raised in breast milk."

The research on human milk sugar has been published in the renowned journal Science Advances and has been carried out in a broad collaboration between researchers with expertise in microbiology, protein and carbohydrate chemistry and bioinformatics. The part of the study involving the analysis of stool samples and breast milk from mother-child pairs and a control group of adults has been performed in Japan, while the molecular descriptions of the transport proteins and their HMO preferences have been performed in Denmark.

The establishment of children's gut microbiota starts at birth and develops until the baby is two to three years old. During this time, before maturation of the immune system, major changes in the gut microbiota may occur. When the baby is weaned from breast milk, the child's immune system is programmed with a specific structure in the gut environment that the child carries with him throughout his adult life.

Maher Abou Hachem emphasizes that there is solid evidence that bifidobacteria play an important role in the development of a healthy gut microbiota in children. A well-developed bacterial community in infancy reduces the risk factors for immune and metabolic disorders such as allergies, asthma, diabetes, obesity and a variety of other diseases.

“It is important to establish the right gut microbiota early in the child's life. Conversely, factors that interfere with the development of the right microbiota are associated with lifelong health consequences. If we get the wrong organisms from early life, get used to them and are accepted as part of the microbiota, it will be very difficult to re-select the normal and health-promoting bacteria afterwards, ”says Maher Abou Hachem.

Mikiyasu Sakanaka, Morten Ejby Hansen, Aina Gotoh, Toshihiko Katoh, Keisuke Yoshida, Toshitaka Odamaki, Hiroyuki Yachi, Yuta Sugiyama, Shin Kurihara, Junko Hirose, Tadasu Urashima, Jin-zhong Xiao, Motomitsu Kitaoka, Satoru Fukiya, Atsushi Yokota, Leila Lo Leggio, Maher Abou Hachem, Takane Katayama. Evolutionary adaptation in fucosyllactose uptake systems supports bifidobacteria-infant symbiosis. Science Advances, 2019; 5 (8): eaaw7696 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw7696.

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