Human milk oligosaccharides: Evolution, structures and bioselectivity as substrates for intestinal bacteria

J. German, S. Freeman, Carlito B Lebrilla, D. Mills

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

148 Scopus citations


Human milk contains a high concentration of diverse soluble oligosaccharides, carbohydrate polymers formed from a small number of monosaccharides. Novel methods combining liquid chromatography with high resolution mass spectrometry have identified approximately 200 unique oligosaccharides structures varying from 3 to 22 sugars. The increasing complexity of oligosaccharides follows the general pattern of mammalian evolution though the concentration and diversity of these structures in homo sapiens are strikingly. There is also diversity among human mothers in oligosaccharides. Milks from randomly selected mothers contain as few as 23 and as many as 130 different oligosaccharides. The functional implications of this diversity are not known. Despite the role of milk to serve as a sole nutrient source for mammalian infants, the oligosaccharides in milk are not digestible by human infants. This apparent paradox raises questions about the functions of these oligosaccharides and how their diverse molecular structures affect their functions. The nutritional function most attributed to milk oligosaccharides is to serve as prebiotics - a form of indigestible carbohydrate that is selectively fermented by desirable gut microflora. This function was tested by purifying human milk oligosaccharides and providing these as the sole carbon source to various intestinal bacteria. Indeed, the selectively of providing the complex mixture of oligosaccharides pooled from human milk samples is remarkable. Among a variety of Bifidobacteria tested only Bifidobacteria longum biovar infantis was able to grow extensively on human milk oligosaccharides as sole carbon source. The genomic sequence of this strain revealed approximately 700 genes that are unique to infantis, including a variety of co-regulated glycosidases, relative to other Bifidobacteria, implying a co-evolution of human milk oligosaccharides and the genetic capability of select intestinal bacteria to utilize them. The goal of ongoing research is to assign specific functions to the combined oligosaccharide-bacteria-host interactions that emerged from this evolutionary pressure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNestle Nutrition Workshop Series: Pediatric Program
Number of pages14
StatePublished - 2008

Publication series

NameNestle Nutrition Workshop Series: Pediatric Program
ISSN (Print)16616677
ISSN (Electronic)16623878

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Food Science
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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