Bifidobacteria in the infant gut use human milk oligosaccharides: how does this lead to health benefits?

By Martin Frederik Laursen, Technical University of Denmark, 2022 co-recipient of Glenn Gibson Early Career Research Prize

Breast milk is the ‘gold standard’ of infant nutrition, and recently scientists have zeroed in on human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) as key components of human milk, which through specific interaction with bifidobacteria, may improve infant health. Clarifying mechanisms by which HMOs act in concert with bifidobacteria in the infant gut may lead to better nutritional products for infants.

Back in early 2016, I was in the middle of my PhD studies working on determinants of the infant gut microbiota composition in the Licht lab at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark. I had been working with fecal samples from a Danish infant cohort study, called SKOT (Danish abbreviation for “Diet and well-being of young children”), investigating how the diet introduced in the complementary feeding period (as recorded by the researchers) influences the gut microbiota development 1,2. Around the same time, Henrik Munch Roager, PostDoc in the lab, was developing a liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LC-MS)-based method for quantifying the aromatic amino acids (AAA) and their bacterially produced metabolites in fecal samples (the 3 AAAs and 16 derivatives thereof). These bacterially produced AAA metabolites were starting to receive attention because of their role in microbiota-host cross-talk and interaction with various receptors such as the Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor (AhR) expressed in immune cells and important for controlling immune responses at mucosal surfaces 3,4. However, virtually nothing was known about bacterial metabolism of the AAAs in the gut in an early life context. Further, the fecal samples collected from the SKOT cohort were obtained in a period of life when infants are experiencing rapid dietary changes (e.g. cessation of breastfeeding and introduction of various new foods). Thus, we wondered whether the AAA metabolites would be affected by diet and whether these metabolites might contribute to the development of the infant’s immune system. Our initial results quickly guided us on the track of breastfeeding and bifidobacteria! Here is a summary of the story, published last year in Nature Microbiology5. (See the accompanying News & Views article here.)

We initially looked at the data from a subset of 59 infants, aged 9 months, from the SKOT cohort. Here we found that both the gut microbiome and the AAA metabolome were affected by breastfeeding status (breastfed versus weaned). It is well established that certain bifidobacteria dominate the bacterial gut community in breastfed infants due to their efficient utilization of HMOs – which are abundant components of human breastmilk 6. Our data showed the same, namely enrichment of Bifidobacterium in the breastfed infants, but also indicated that the abundance of specific AAA metabolites were dependent on breastfeeding.

Trying to connect the gut microbiome and AAA metabolome, we found striking correlations between the relative abundance of Bifidobacterium and specifically abundances of three aromatic amino acid catabolites – namely indolelactic acid (ILA), phenyllactic acid (PLA) and 4-hydroxyphenyllactic acid (4-OH-PLA), collectively aromatic lactic acids. These metabolites are formed in two enzymatic reactions (a transamination followed by a hydrogenation) of the aromatic amino acids tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine. However, the genes involved in this pathway were not known for bifidobacteria. Digging deeper we discovered that not all Bifidobacterium species found in the infant’s gut correlated with these metabolites. This was only true for the Bifidobacterium species enriched in the breastfed infants (e.g. B. longum, B. bifidum and B. breve), but not post-weaning/adult type bifidobacteria such as B. adolescentis and B. catenulatum group.

We decided to go back to the lab and investigate these associations by culturing representative strains of the Bifidobacterium species found in the gut of these infants. Indeed, our results confirmed that Bifidobacterium species are able to produce aromatic lactic acids, and importantly that the ability to produce them was much stronger for the HMO-utilizing (e.g. B. longum, B. bifidum and B. breve) compared to the non-HMO utilizing bifidobacteria (e.g. B. adolescentis, B. animalis and B. catenulatum). Next, in a series of experiments we identified the genetic pathway in Bifidobacterium species responsible for production of the aromatic lactic acids and performed enzyme kinetic studies of the key enzyme, an aromatic lactate dehydrogenase (Aldh), catalyzing the last step of the conversion of aromatic amino acids into aromatic lactic acids. Thus, we were able to demonstrate the genetic and enzymatic basis for production of these metabolites in Bifidobacterium species.

To explore the temporal dynamics of Bifidobacteria and aromatic lactic acids and validate our findings in an early infancy context (a critical phase of immune system development), we recruited 25 infants (Copenhagen Infant Gut [CIG] cohort) from which we obtained feces from birth until six months of age. These data were instrumental for demonstrating the tight connection between specific Bifidobacterium species, HMO-utilization and production of aromatic lactic acids in the early infancy gut and further indicated that formula supplementation, pre-term delivery and antibiotics negatively influence the concentrations of these metabolites in early life.

Having established that HMO-utilizing Bifidobacterium species are key producers of aromatic lactic acids in the infant gut, we focused on the potential health implications of this. We were able to show that the capacity of early infancy feces to in vitro activate the AhR, depended on the abundance of aromatic lactic acid producing Bifidobacterium species and the concentrations of ILA (a known AhR agonist) in the fecal samples obtained from the CIG cohort. Further, using isolated human immune cells (ex vivo) we showed that ILA modulates cytokine responses in Th17 polarized cells – namely it increased IL-22 production in a dose and AhR-dependent manner. IL-22 is a cytokine important for protection of mucosal surfaces, e.g. it affects secretion of antimicrobial proteins, permeability and mucus production 7. Further, we tested ILA in LPS/INFγ induced monocytes (ex vivo), and found that ILA was able to decrease the production of the proinflammatory cytokine IL-12p70, in a manner dependent upon both AhR and the Hydroxycarboxylic Acid (HCA3) receptor, a receptor expressed in neutrophils, macrophages and monocytes and involved in mediation of anti-inflammatory processes 8,9. Overall, our data reveal potentially important ways in which bifidobacteria influence the infant’s developing immune system.

Figure 1 – HMO-utilizing Bifidobacterium species produce immuno-regulatory aromatic lactic acids in the infant gut.

Our study provided a novel link between HMO-utilizing Bifidobacterium species, production of aromatic lactic acids and immune-regulation in early life (Figure 1). This may explain previous observations that the relative abundance of bifidobacteria in the infant gut is inversely associated with development of asthma and allergic diseases 10–12 and our results, together with other recent findings13–15 are pointing towards aromatic lactic acids (especially ILA) as potentially important mediators of beneficial immune effects induced by HMO-utilizing Bifidobacterium species.



  1. Laursen, M. F. et al. Infant Gut Microbiota Development Is Driven by Transition to Family Foods Independent of Maternal Obesity. mSphere 1, e00069-15 (2016).
  2. Laursen, M. F., Bahl, M. I., Michaelsen, K. F. & Licht, T. R. First foods and gut microbes. Front. Microbiol. 8, (2017).
  3. Zelante, T. et al. Tryptophan catabolites from microbiota engage aryl hydrocarbon receptor and balance mucosal reactivity via interleukin-22. Immunity 39, 372–385 (2013).
  4. Sridharan, G. V. et al. Prediction and quantification of bioactive microbiota metabolites in the mouse gut. Nat. Commun. 5, 1–13 (2014).
  5. Laursen, M. F. et al. Bifidobacterium species associated with breastfeeding produce aromatic lactic acids in the infant gut. Nat. Microbiol. 6, 1367–1382 (2021).
  6. Sakanaka, M. et al. Varied pathways of infant gut-associated Bifidobacterium to assimilate human milk oligosaccharides: Prevalence of the gene set and its correlation with bifidobacteria-rich microbiota formation. Nutrients 12, 71 (2020).
  7. Keir, M. E., Yi, T., Lu, T. T. & Ghilardi, N. The role of IL-22 in intestinal health and disease. J. Exp. Med. 217, (2020).
  8. Peters, A. et al. Metabolites of lactic acid bacteria present in fermented foods are highly potent agonists of human hydroxycarboxylic acid receptor 3. PLoS Genet. 15, e1008145 (2019).
  9. Peters, A. et al. Hydroxycarboxylic acid receptor 3 and GPR84 – Two metabolite-sensing G protein-coupled receptors with opposing functions in innate immune cells. Pharmacol. Res. 176, (2022).
  10. Fujimura, K. E. et al. Neonatal gut microbiota associates with childhood multisensitized atopy and T cell differentiation. Nat. Med. 22, 1187–1191 (2016).
  11. Stokholm, J. et al. Maturation of the gut microbiome and risk of asthma in childhood. Nat. Commun. 9, 141 (2018).
  12. Seppo, A. E. et al. Infant gut microbiome is enriched with Bifidobacterium longum ssp. infantis in Old Order Mennonites with traditional farming lifestyle. Allergy Eur. J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 76, 3489–3503 (2021).
  13. Meng, D. et al. Indole-3-lactic acid, a metabolite of tryptophan, secreted by Bifidobacterium longum subspecies infantis is anti-inflammatory in the immature intestine. Pediatr. Res. 88, 209–217 (2020).
  14. Ehrlich, A. M. et al. Indole-3-lactic acid associated with Bifidobacterium-dominated microbiota significantly decreases inflammation in intestinal epithelial cells. BMC Microbiol. 20, 357 (2020).
  15. Henrick, B. M. et al. Bifidobacteria-mediated immune system imprinting early in life. Cell 184, 3884-3898.e11 (2021).

Probiotics vs. prebiotics: Which to choose? And when?

By Dr. Karen Scott, PhD, Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

As consumers we are constantly bombarded with information on what we should eat to improve our health. Yet the information changes so fast that it sometimes seems that what was good for us last week should now be avoided at all costs!

Probiotics and prebiotics are not exempt from such confusing recommendations, and one area lacking clarity for many is which of them we should pick, and when. In this blog I will consider the relative merits of probiotics and prebiotics for the gut environment and health.

By definition, both probiotics and prebiotics should ‘confer a health benefit on the host’. Since an improvement in health can be either subjective (simply feeling better) or measurable (e.g. a lowering in blood pressure) it is clear that there is not a single way to define a ‘health benefit’. This was discussed nicely in a previous blog by Prof Colin Hill.

Although consumption of both probiotics and prebiotics should provide a health benefit, this does not mean that both need to act through the gut microbiota. Prebiotics definitively need to be selectively utilised by host microorganisms – they are food for our existing microbiota. However, depending on the site of action, this need not be the gut microbiota, and prebiotics targeting other microbial ecosystems in or on the body are being developed. Traditionally prebiotics have specifically been used to boost numbers of gut bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and the Lactobacilliaceae family, but new prebiotics targeting different members of the gut microbiota are also currently being researched.

Probiotics are live bacteria and despite a wealth of scientific evidence that specific probiotic bacterial strains confer specific health benefits, we often still do not know the exact mechanisms of action. This can make it difficult both to explain how or why they work, and to select new strains conferring similar health benefits. Many probiotics exert their effects within the gut environment, but they may or may not do this by interacting with the resident gut microbiota. For instance probiotics that reduce inflammation do so by interacting directly with cells in the mucosal immune system. Yet strains of lactobacilli (see here for what’s included in this group of bacteria) may do this by modulating cytokine production while Bifidobacterium strains induce tolerance acquisition. These very different mechanisms are one reason why mixtures containing several probiotic species or strains may in the end prove the most effective way to improve health. On the other hand, some probiotics do interact with the resident gut microbes: probiotics that act by inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria clearly interact with other bacteria. Sometimes these may be potential disease-causing members of the resident microbiota, normally kept in check by other commensal microbes that themselves have become depleted due to some external impact, and some may be incoming pathogens. Such interactions can occur in the gut or elsewhere in the body.

This brings me back to the original question, and one I am frequently asked – should I take a probiotic or a prebiotic? The true and quick answer to this question is ‘it depends’! It depends why you are asking the question, and what you want to achieve. Let’s think about a few possible reasons for asking the question.

I want to improve the diversity of my microbiota. Should I take a prebiotic or a probiotic?

My first reaction was that there is an easy answer to this question – a prebiotic. Prebiotics are ‘food’ for your resident bacteria, so it follows that if you want to improve the diversity of your existing microbiota you should take a prebiotic. However, in reality this is too simplistic. Since prebiotics are selectively utilised by a few specific bacteria within the commensal microbiota to provide a health benefit, taking a prebiotic will boost the numbers of those specific bacteria. If the overall bacterial diversity is low, this may indeed improve the diversity. However, if the person asking the question already has a diverse microbiota, although taking one specific prebiotic may boost numbers of a specific bacterium, it may not change the overall diversity in a measurable way. In fact the best way to increase the overall diversity of your microbiota is to consume a diverse fibre-rich diet – in that way you are providing all sorts of different foods for the many different species of bacteria living in the gut, and this will increase the diversity of your microbiota.  Of course, if you already consume a diverse fibre-rich diet your microbiota may already be very diverse, and any increased diversity may not be measurable.

I want to increase numbers of bifidobacteria in my microbiota. Should I take a prebiotic or a probiotic?

Again, I initially thought this was easy to answer – a prebiotic. There is a considerable amount of evidence that prebiotics based on fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS or inulin) boost numbers of bifidobacteria in the human gut. But this is only true as long as there are bifidobacteria present that can be targeted by consuming suitable prebiotics. Some scientific studies have shown that there are people who respond to prebiotic consumption and people who do not (categorised as responders and non-responders). This can be for two very different reasons. If an individual is devoid of all Bifidobacterium species completely, no amount of prebiotic will increase bifidobacteria numbers, so they would be a non-responder. In contrast if someone already has a large, diverse bifidobacteria population, a prebiotic may not make a meaningful impact on numbers – so they may also be a non-responder.

However, for those people who do not have any resident Bifidobacterium species, the only possible way to increase them would indeed be to consume a probiotic- specifically a probiotic containing one or several specific Bifidobacterium species. Consuming a suitable diet, or a prebiotic alongside the probiotic, may help retention of the consumed bifidobacteria, but this also depends on interactions with the host and resident microbiota.

I want to increase numbers of ‘specific bacterium x’ in my microbiota. Should I take a prebiotic or a probiotic?

The answer here overlaps with answer 2, and depends on the specific bacterium, and what products are available commercially, but the answer could be to take either, or a combination of both – i.e. a synbiotic.

If bacterium x is available as a probiotic, consuming that particular product could help. If bacterium x has been widely researched, and the specific compounds it uses for growth have been established, identifying and consuming products containing those compounds could boost numbers of bacterium x within the resident microbiota. Such research may already have identified combination products – synbiotics – that could also be available.

One caveat for the answers to questions 2 and 3 is that probiotics do not need to establish or alter the gut microbiota to have a beneficial effect on health. In fact, a healthy large intestine has a microbial population of around 1011-1012 bacterial cells per ml, or up to 1014 cells in total, while a standard pot of yogurt contains 1010 bacterial cells (108 cells/ml). Assuming every probiotic bacterial cell reaches the large intestine alive, they would be present in a ratio of 1: 10,000. This makes it difficult for them to find a specific niche to colonise, so consuming a probiotic may not “increase numbers of ‘specific bacterium x’ in my microbiota”, but this does not mean that the function of the probiotic within the gut ecosystem would not provide a health benefit. Many probiotics act without establishing in the microbiota.

I’ve been prescribed antibiotics. Should I take a prebiotic or a probiotic?

In this case the answer is clear cut – a probiotic.

There is a lot of evidence that consumption of probiotics can alleviate symptoms of, or reduce the duration of, antibiotic associated diarrhoea. From what we know about mechanisms of action, consumption of antibiotics kills many resident gut bacteria, reducing the overall bacterial population and providing an opportunity for harmful bacteria to become more dominant. Consuming certain probiotics can either help boost bacterial numbers in the large intestine, preventing the increased growth in pathogenic bacteria until the resident population recovers, or can increase production of short chain fatty acids, decreasing the colonic pH, preventing growth of harmful bacteria. Ideally probiotics would be taken alongside antibiotics, from day 1, to avoid the increase in numbers of the potentially harmful bacteria in the first place. This has been shown to be more effective. Consuming the probiotic alongside prebiotics that could help the resident microbiota recover more quickly may be even more effective. Even if you’ve already started the course of antibiotics, it’s not too late to start taking probiotics to reduce any side-effects. Always remember to complete taking the course of antibiotics as prescribed.



Putting all of this together to answer the initial question of whether it’s better to take probiotics or prebiotics, a better answer may in fact be take both to cover the different effects each has, maximising the benefit to health. There are specific times when probiotics are better, and other times when prebiotics are better, and consuming both together may make each more effective. In any case care has to be taken to consume a product that has been confirmed through robust studies to have the specific benefit that is required.


Effects of the food matrix on probiotic’s efficacy: how much should we care?

By Gabriel Vinderola PhD, Researcher at the Dairy Products Institute (National Scientific and Technical Research Council – CONICET) and Associate Professor at the Food Technology and Biotechnology Department, Faculty of Chemical Engineering, National University of Litoral, Santa Fe, Argentina.

The issue of to what extent food components may affect probiotic efficacy when compared to the strain delivered as supplement has lately been the subject of debate. This is especially so in the context of the Codex Alimentarius guidelines on probiotics, presently under development.

When considering the importance of the food formulation delivering the probiotic, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that people may get their daily probiotic together with an enormous variety of foods. For instance, one person may get the probiotic at breakfast along with a yoghurt or with cereal, whereas another person may choose to consumer a fruit juice, while a third may get the probiotic dose before a meal consisting of pasta, meat and vegetables. In those cases, the same strain can undergo gastrointestinal passage in the context of very different food exposures. Does this suggest that perhaps the specific food format is not so critical? What does research tell us?

An interesting, however in vitro, study was conducted by Grześkowiak et al. (2011). In this work, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG was recovered from more than 12 foods and supplements and its ability to inhibit food pathogens was assessed in vitro. Authors showed that even when the inhibitory capacity was quantitatively different among isolates, the qualitative probiotic capacity of inhibiting pathogens was present in all of them. That is to say, the probiotic capacity had been retained to a somewhat greater or lesser degree, regardless the matrix.

Few human studies have measured to what extent a health endpoint changes when a probiotic is delivered in different food matrixes. For instance, Saxelin et al. (2010) showed that the administration matrix (capsules, yogurt or cheese) did not influence the faecal quantity of lactobacilli, but affected faecal counts of propionibacteria and bifidobacteria. However no health endpoint was considered in this study. Several studies demonstrate that dairy products are able to confer enhanced protection during gastrointestinal transit in in vitro settings (Vinderola et al., 2000; Sagheddu et al., 2018; da Cruz Rodrigues et al., 2019), suggesting that dairy products may be better at delivering an efficacious dose of probiotic. But again, no clinical endpoint was measured in these studies.

The first comparative study on the probiotic capacity of a strain delivered in food or supplement was reported by Isolauri et al. (1991). Authors demonstrated that Lactobacillus GG either in fermented milk or freeze-dried powder was effective in shortening the course of acute diarrhea. Later on, Meng et al. (2016) found similar patterns of immune stimulation when studying the impact of Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis BB12 administration in yoghurt or capsules on the upper respiratory tract of healthy adults.

As these kinds of studies are scarce, we can look to meta-analysis where the same strain is compared for the same clinical endpoint, but in studies conducted by different groups in different matrixes. For instance, Szajewska et al. (2013) concluded that Lactobacillus GG delivered in capsules or fermented milk significantly reduced the duration of diarrhea and Urbańska et al. (2016) reported that L. reuteri DSM 17938 delivered in either capsules or infant formula reduced the duration of diarrhoea and increased the chance of cure.

In vitro studies find that survival of the probiotic delivered in different food matrices through a (simulated) gastrointestinal transit may quantitatively differ, but no matrix completely eliminates probiotic capacity. Human clinical trials comparing different matrices with a clear health endpoint are scarce, but a general conclusion seems to emerge: regardless of the food matrix, the probiotic effect is achieved.  When the data are assessed through meta-analysis, the top of the “levels of evidence” in the pyramid of evidence-based studies, the probiotic capacity exists for the same strain among different studies, conducted by different research groups, using different food matrices.

In many countries regulators require that the probiotic effect be demonstrated in the same food or supplement that will be offered to consumers. This is a conservative approach in the lack of other evidence, but it may be challenging at the same time for probiotic food development, as any new food, even similar to one already existing, may require new human clinical studies to demonstrate efficacy. This approach may raise economic and ethical concerns too, and be discouraging for the future of probiotics.

Surely additional clinical trials directly comparing effects among different delivery matrices would provide clarity on the importance of this factor to probiotic functionality. Until that time, regulators should enable probiotic food manufacturers to offer a sound scientific rationale that bio-equivalency of different matrices could be expected, and thereby circumvent the requirement need to re-conduct human clinical trials on probiotics delivered in new matrices.



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