Microbes found in the intestinal tract can impact overall health, scientists have determined. During infancy, these microbes promote intestinal and immune development, making a diversity of microbes important in these early months. Up until now, however, very little has been done to determine how diet of an infant affects microbe growth and development.
The recent study, published in BioMed Central’s open access journal Genome Biology, showed that different microbes found in the guts of breastfed infants and formula-fed infants were different, and that these differences lead to changes in the genetic expression of the immune system and defense against pathogens.
Researchers determined this by examining the epithelial cells of infants – a lining in the intestine that serves as the body’s first line of defense against food antigens and pathogens. Approximately one-sixth of these cells are shed each day through fecal matter, which allowed researchers to test the gut microbes of the three month old infants involved in the study, without having to use any invasive procedures.
Transcriptome analysis was used to compare the intestinal microbes of each infant. This allowed the researchers to examine a small percentage of their genetic codes, helping them determine which genes, specifically, are making proteins.
For comparison purposes, infants were separated into two separate groups – exclusively breastfed and exclusively formula fed. The results showed that breastfed infants had a wider range of microbes in their gut compared to formula-fed infants. Their immune systems had developed to cope with these extra microbes, which indicated a stronger immune system.
“While we found that the microbe of breastfed infants is significantly enriched in genes associated with ‘virulence,’ including a resistance to antibiotics and toxic compounds, we also found a correlation between bacterial pathogenicity and the expression of host genes associated with the immune and defense mechanisms,” stated Robert Chapkin from the Texas A&M University, leader on the multi-center study. “Our findings suggest that human milk promotes the beneficial crosstalk between the immune system and microbe population in the gut, and maintains all intestinal stability.”
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