Maturation of the preterm gastrointestinal tract can be defined by host and microbial markers for digestion and barrier defense

Henderickx, Jannie G.E.; Zwittink, Romy D.; Renes, Ingrid B.; Lingen, Richard A. van; Zoeren-Grobben, Diny van; Groot Jebbink, Liesbeth J.; Boeren, Sjef; Elburg, Ruurd M. van; Knol, Jan; Belzer, Clara


Functionality of the gastrointestinal tract is essential for growth and development of newborns. Preterm infants have an immature gastrointestinal tract, which is a major challenge in neonatal care. This study aims to improve the understanding of gastrointestinal functionality and maturation during the early life of preterm infants by means of gastrointestinal enzyme activity assays and metaproteomics. In this single-center, observational study, preterm infants born between 24 and 33 weeks (n = 40) and term infants born between 37 and 42 weeks (n = 3), who were admitted to Isala (Zwolle, the Netherlands), were studied. Enzyme activity analyses identified active proteases in gastric aspirates of preterm infants. Metaproteomics revealed human milk, digestive and immunological proteins in gastric aspirates of preterm infants and feces of preterm and term infants. The fecal proteome of preterm infants was deprived of gastrointestinal barrier-related proteins during the first six postnatal weeks compared to term infants. In preterm infants, bacterial oxidative stress proteins were increased compared to term infants and higher birth weight correlated to higher relative abundance of bifidobacterial proteins in postnatal week 3 to 6. Our findings indicate that gastrointestinal and beneficial microbial proteins involved in gastrointestinal maturity are associated with gestational and postnatal age.