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Portrait of a Supportive Microbe: Bifidobacterium

Key Topics: Digestive Health
March 24, 2020 • 3 min read

A “healthy” GI environment has a diverse population of microorganisms. One species of beneficial bacteria, called Bifidobacterium, is one of the first microbes to colonize the GI tract.

Supporting the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is important, as the GI tract is the body’s first line of defense against exposure to external factors like food, toxicants, and pathogens. Fostering a healthy GI environment helps to support proper functioning of the GI lining, strengthening the defense from environmental influences and optimizing nutrient absorption. A “healthy” GI environment is one with a diverse population of microorganisms, rich with beneficial bacteria.

What are Bifidobacteria in the context of GI health?

One species of beneficial bacteria, called Bifidobacterium, is among the first microbes to colonize the GI tract. This often means that Bifidobacteria populations make up the large majority of intestinal bacteria for healthy infants who are breastfed by their mothers.1,2 After weaning and the introduction of solid foods, the dominance of Bifidobacteria in the GI tract begins to diminish. In adulthood, Bifidobacteria make up anywhere from two to fourteen percent of total gut microbes.3 Bifidobacteria population levels diminish even further in elderly populations.3-5

First isolated in 1899, Bifidobacteria genomic enzymes have a long history of links to carbohydrate metabolism. Bifidobacteria are uniquely able to metabolize human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), such as 2’-Fucosyllactose (2’-FL), as an energy source. As a result, Bifidobacteria produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), lactic acid, and other end-stage fermentation products.6-8 As babies grow and rely on solid food over breast milk, they transition from gathering energy via HMO metabolism to a diverse diet of plant-derived sugars and other macronutrients.

Bifidobacteria Support GI Health

Bifidobacteria can be used as probiotics, but not all probiotics are necessarily Bifidobacteria. Like other probiotics, Bifidobacteria are associated with various health benefits such as addressing GI disorders, intestinal regularity, and reducing the risk of colon cancer.9-11

Facilitating the growth of beneficial bacteria is important because these microorganisms produce antimicrobial substances as a natural attempt to survive in a competitive environment, with other microorganisms, including populations less friendly to the human host, fighting for the same nutrients and binding sites. If access to vital resources is limited to either Bifidobacteria or E. coli, it is certainly beneficial for human health for Bifidobacteria to win the bid.

Helpful bacteria also provide many beneficial metabolic actions. They produce vitamins and short chain fatty acids, transform phytonutrients into absorbable, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant components, and metabolize cholesterol and bile. Beneficial microbes also act as biological binders to environmental toxicants.

While the mechanism of action responsible for these potential health associations is not fully understood, scientists have observed beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacteria involved in competitive exclusion of pathogens based on common binding sites on epithelial cells.12-13 If beneficial bacteria are binding epithelial cells, then pathogenic bacteria do not have the opportunity to do so, potentially avoiding pathogenic interactions.

Bifidobacteria play a unique and robust role in securing a healthy functioning GI tract. This makes “feedingBifidobacteria a priority, and HMOs like 2’-FL do just that as an exclusive energy source. HMOs are unique carbohydrates that are only found in significant amounts from human breast milk. Their targeted ability to feed good bacteria make them the first and only prebiotic designed to work for humans. Many different HMOs are found in breastmilk, but the most abundant of them is 2’-FL.

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  1. De Leoz, M.L.A., et al. (2015). Human milk glycomics and gut microbial genomics in infant feces show a correlation between human milk oligosaccharides and gut microbiota: A proof-of-concept study. Journal of Proteome Research, 14(1), 491-502.
  2. Bai, Y., et al. (2018). Fucosylated human milk oligosaccharides and N-Glycans in the milk of Chinese mothers regulate the gut microbiome of their breast-fed infants during different lactation stages. mSystems, 3(6), e00206-18.
  3. Arboleya, S., et al. (2016). Gut Bifidobacteria populations in human health and aging. Frontiers in Microbiology, 7(1204).
  4. Claesson, M.J., et al. (2012). Gut microbiota composition correlates with diet and health in the elderly. Nature, 488(7410), 178-84.
  5. Greenhalgh, K., et al. (2016). The human gut microbiome in health: establishment and resilience of microbiota over a lifetime. Environ Microbiol, 18(7), 2103-16.
  6. Medina, D.A., et al. (2017). Prebiotics mediate microbial interactions in a consortium of the infant gut microbiome. International journal of molecular sciences, 18(10), 2095.
  7. Marcobal, A., et al. (2010). Consumption of human milk oligosaccharides by gut-related microbes. J Agric Food Chem, 58(9), 5334-40.
  8. Ruiz-Moyano, S., et al. (2013). Variation in consumption of human milk oligosaccharides by infant gut-associated strains of <span class="named-content genus-species" id="named-content-1">Bifidobacterium breve</span&gt. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 79(19), 6040.
  9. Roberfroid, M., et al. (2010). Prebiotic effects: metabolic and health benefits. Br J Nutr, 104 (2),  S1-63.
  10. Williams, E.A., et al. (2009). Clinical trial: a multistrain probiotic preparation significantly reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in a double-blind placebo-controlled study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther, 29(1), 97-103.
  11. Whorwell, P.J., et al. (2006). Efficacy of an encapsulated probiotic Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 in women with irritable bowel syndrome. Am J Gastroenterol, 101(7), 1581-90.
  12. Beachey, E.H. (1981). Bacterial adherence: adhesin-receptor interactions mediating the attachment of bacteria to mucosal surface. J Infect Dis, 143(3), 325-45.
  13. Lingwood, C.A. (1998). Oligosaccharide receptors for bacteria: a view to a kill. Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, 2(6), 695-700.

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