Human milk glycobiome and its impact on the infant gastrointestinal microbiota
Human milk contains an unexpected abundance and diversity of complex oligosaccharides apparently indigestible by the developing infant and instead targeted to its cognate gastrointestinal microbiota. Recent advances in mass spectrometry-based tools have provided a view of the oligosaccharide structures produced in milk across stages of lactation and among human mothers. One postulated function for these oligosaccharides is to enrich a specific “healthy” microbiota containing bifidobacteria, a genus commonly observed in the feces of breast-fed infants. Isolated culture studies indeed show selective growth of infant-borne bifidobacteria on milk oligosaccharides or core components therein. Parallel glycoprofiling documented that numerous Bifidobacterium longum subsp. infantis strains preferentially consume small mass oligosaccharides that are abundant early in the lactation cycle. Genome sequencing of numerous B. longum subsp. infantis strains shows a bias toward genes required to use mammalian-derived carbohydrates by comparison with adult-borne bifidobacteria. This intriguing strategy of mammalian lactation to selectively nourish genetically compatible bacteria in infants with a complex array of free oligosaccharides serves as a model of how to influence the human supraorganismal system, which includes the gastrointestinal microbiota.