By Prof. Maria Marco, PhD, Department of Food Science & Technology, University of California, Davis
It is increasingly appreciated by consumers, physicians, and researchers alike that the human digestive tract is colonized by trillions of bacteria and many of those bacterial colonists have important roles in promoting human health. Because of this association between the gut microbiota and health, it seems appropriate to suggest that probiotics consumed in foods, beverages, or dietary supplements should also colonize the human digestive tract. But do probiotics really colonize? What is meant by the term “colonization” in the first place? If probiotics don’t colonize, does that mean that they are ineffective? In that case, should we be searching for new probiotic strains that have colonization potential?
My answer to the first question is no – probiotics generally do not colonize the digestive tract or other sites on the human body. Before leaping to conclusions on what this means for probiotic efficacy, “colonization” as defined here means the permanent, or at least long-term (weeks, months, or years) establishment at a specific body site. Colonization can also result in engraftment with consequential changes to the gut microbiota composition and function. For colonization to occur, the probiotic should multiply and form a stably replicating population. This outcome is distinct from a more transient, short-term (a few days to a week or so) persistence of a probiotic. For transient probiotics, it has been shown in numerous ways that they are metabolically active in the intestine and might even grow and divide. However, they are not expected to replicate to high numbers or displace members of the native gut microbiota.
Although some studies have shown that digestive tracts of infants can be colonized by probiotics (weeks to months), the intestinal persistence times of probiotic strains in children and adults is generally much shorter, lasting only few days. This difference is likely due to the resident gut microbiota that develops during infancy and tends to remain relatively stable throughout adulthood. Even with perturbations caused by antibiotics or foodborne illness, the gut microbiome tends to be resilient to the long-term establishment of exogenous bacterial strains. In instances where probiotic colonization or long-term persistence was found, colonization potential has been attributed more permissive gut microbiomes specific to certain individuals. In either case, for colonization to occur, any introduced probiotic has to overcome the significant ecological constraints inherent to existing, stable ecosystems.
This leads to the next question: Can probiotics confer health benefits even if they do not colonize? My answer is definitely yes! Human studies on probiotics with positive outcomes have not relied on intestinal colonization by those microbes to cause an effect. Instead of colonizing, probiotics can alter the digestive tract in other ways such as by producing metabolites that modulate the activity of the gut microbiota or stimulate the intestinal epithelium directly. These effects could happen even on short-time scales, ranging from minutes to hours.
Should we be searching for new probiotic strains that have greater colonization potential? By extension of what we know about the resident human gut microbiota, it is increasingly attractive to identify bacteria that colonize the human digestive tract in the same way. In some situations, colonization might be preferred or even essential to impacting health, such as by engrafting a microbe that performs critical metabolic functions in the gut (e.g. break down complex carbohydrates). However, colonization also comes with risks of unintended consequences and the loss of ability to control the dose, frequency, and duration of exposure to that particular microbe.
Just as most pharmaceutical drugs have a transient impact on the human body, why should we expect more from probiotics? Many medications need to be taken life-long in order manage chronic conditions. Single or even repeated doses of any medication are similarly not expected to cure disease. Therefore, we should not assume a priori that any observed variations in probiotic efficacy are due to a lack of colonization. To the contrary, the consumption of probiotics could be sufficient for a ripple effect in the intestine, subtly altering the responses of the gut microbiome and intestinal epithelium in ways that are amplified throughout the body. Instead of aiming for engraftment directly or hand-wringing due to a lack of colonization, understanding the precise molecular interactions and cause/effect consequences of probiotic introduction will lead to a path that ultimately determines whether colonization is needed or just a distraction.