The ontogeny of the small intestinal epithelium

JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. Sep-Oct 1999;23(5 Suppl):S3-6. doi: 10.1177/014860719902300502.


The primary factors in feeding premature infants are dependent on the development and maturation of digestion and absorption. The maturation of digestive and absorptive functions of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins in the young premature infant were determined in relation to availability of hydrolytic enzymes, such as lipases, proteases, amylases, glucosidases, and lactase. The feeding is dependent on the ability of the premature infant to secrete salivary enzymes, gastric acid, pepsin, pancreatic exocrine enzymes, the presence of enterohepatic circulation, and the hydrolytic and absorptive capacity of the entercocyte. To evaluate the complexity of the gut maturation process, we proposed a unified concept where the ontogeny of the gastrointestinal system is the result of the following four major determinants: genetic endowment, intrinsic developmental and biological clock, endogenous regulatory mechanisms, and environmental influences. The developmental clock represents a predetermined temporal sequence of happenings in ontogeny that is inherently controlled. By 20 weeks of gestation, the anatomic differentiation of the fetal gut has progressed to the extent that it resembles that of a newborn. Secretory and absorptive functions, however, develop at different rates; the intestinal absorptive process is only partially available before 26 weeks of gestation, whereas gastric and pancreatic secretion is only basal and can be stimulated only partially even in the full-term newborn period. Regulatory mechanisms control the expression of the genetic endowment at various stages in gastrointestinal development. Neural-hormonal factors play major roles in the ontogeny of the gut. Adrenalectomy, hypophysectomy, and thyroidectomy delay the development of the gut. Administration of glucocorticoids or thyroxine at the critical stage in maturation causes early appearance of enzymes within the intestine. Other hormones that are potentially important in regulating gastrointestinal development include cholecystokinin, gastrin, secretin, which have trophic effects on the gastrointestinal tract, and insulin, insulin-like growth factors, and epidermial growth factor. The development of gastrointestinal secretory function, particularly in response to hormonal stimulation, has received considerable attention. The degree of response of the target cell is determined not only by the amount of effective hormone reaching it but also by the number and affinity of receptors on its surface. Human newborns have high levels of gastrin in their sera, yet have low acid output. Exogenous gastrin is an ineffective stimulant despite the presence of seemingly "anatomically developed" parietal cells. It seems that neither endogenous nor exogenous gastrin has an effect on the target cell. If one accepts the role of circulating gastrin levels in the regulation of its own receptor, one can hypothesize the absence of a regulatory effect of gastrin in the newborn period. It was shown that hormonal regulation of migrating activity by motilin is also absent in the preterm and term infant. Plasma levels of motilin in neonates are comparable to those found in adults, but migrating motor complexes occur in the absence of cycling of plasma concentrations. Interestingly, however, the motilin receptor appears to be present. In conclusion, the feeding mode content, concentration, and volume of the very young premature infant can be assessed by the development of digestive and absorptive capacity and gut motility. The concomitant changes in gut hormones and regulatory peptides during ontogeny and feeding will add a new dimension in the understanding of when, what, and how to feed the very young premature infant.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Digestion*
  • Digestive System / enzymology
  • Digestive System / growth & development*
  • Digestive System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Motility
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature*
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Intestinal Mucosa / growth & development*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / physiology