Prebiotic fibres known as oligosaccharides, which are prevalent in breast milk, are fundamental in developing a baby’s gut microbiota and strengthening their immunity. Currently, not much is known about the hundreds of different human milk oligosaccharides and their relationship to infant health. One particular oligosaccharide, known as 2-fucosyllactose (2FL), is one of the most abundant in breast milk and is thought to play a prominent role in shaping the gut microbiota of infants. However, existing methods of manufacturing this prebiotic are very costly and, therefore, it has never been included in milk formula for babies.

However, researchers at the University of Illinois, USA, have discovered a more cost efficient way to manufacture the prebiotics. The new production method utilises a modified and safe E. coli strain to quickly synthesise the 2FL.

E. coli was chosen specifically as it naturally produces a starting material for 2FL, as part of its normal metabolism. The scientists then genetically engineered the E. coli strain to produce larger quantities of the ingredients, and also the other ingredients needed to make the finished 2FL.

Lead researcher Professor Michael Miller commented on the research, “We know these oligosaccharides play a vital role in developing a breast-fed baby’s gut microbiota and in strengthening their immunity. 2FL is the most abundant HMO (Human milk oligosaccharide) in breast milk…and we can use this technique to synthesize and study the hundreds of other HMO’s in human milk too.”

Professor Michael Miller and his team plan to investigate the wider impact of 2FL on infant nutrition, before making their recommendation for its inclusion into milk formula.

Reference: Won-Heong, L. et al (2012) Whole cell biosynthesis of a functional oligosaccharide, 2-fucosyllactose, using engineered Escherichia coli. Microbial Cell Factories. 11; 48.

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