Game of HMOs: human milk and the rise of the infant gut microbiota

Breastfeeding is known for its health benefits. Understanding how microbial communities are shaped in the presence of human milk sugars can be a step towards achieving optimal infant nutrition.

Breastfeeding is the suggested form of infant nutrition, but almost 75% of infants in Europe need alternative forms of feeding, primarily infant formula. Infant formula consistency has been improving to mimic its human analogue, but differences between breastfed and formula-fed children are visible, especially in the composition of the gut microbiota. It has been suggested that human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are the components that beneficially shape the microbiota. More than 200 of these oligosaccharides have been found in human milk, all of which occur from the elongation of approximately 19 simpler core structures. The HMOs reach the infant gut and get utilized by some of the residing bacteria. Valuable products of the degradation are shared between bacteria resulting in the formation of microbial networks. However, there are still big knowledge gaps in understanding the utilization of all HMOs and especially of how they affect the formation of microbial communities.

Aim and Approach

The objective of this project is to unravel the optimal trade-off between the structural diversity of milk sugars and the composition and functionality of the infant gut microbiota. The results of this project can improve our understanding of the mechanism through which the human milk drives optimal gut microbiota composition.

We aim to achieve that by creating a toolbox comprised of synthetic communities grown on HMOs of increasing complexity. The first part of the project focuses on bioinformatics analysis the results of which will be utilized for the subsequent in vitro experiments.

Opportunities for BSc/MSc thesis

Are you an enthusiast of the gut microbiome? Would you like to be a part of unravelling how the human milk drives the formation of the gut microbiota in infants? Then dependent on the stage of the project you can:

  • assist in the bioinformatic analysis to investigate the metabolic potential of gut bacteria
  • assist in the in vitro fermentation of human milk sugars. Subsequent analysis on the samples include qPCR (for the enumeration of bacteria), HPLC (for the identification and quantification of metabolites) and metaproteomics (for the identification of produced proteins).

Related information:

Bäckhed et al., 2015. Dynamics and Stabilization of the Human Gut Microbiome during the First Year of Life. Cell Host Microbe.

Yatsunenko et al., 2012. Human gut microbiome viewed across age and geography. Nature.

Kaoutari et al., 2013. The abundance and variety of carbohydrate-active enzymes in the human gut microbiota. Nature Reviews Microbiology.

Van Daele et al., 2019. Microbial transmission from mother to child: improving infant intestinal microbiota development by identifying the obstacles. Critical Reviews in Microbiology.

Morrow & Newburg, 2018. Chapter 4: Human milk oligosaccharides. Gastroenterology and Nutrition: Neonatology Questions and Controversies.