Neonatal protection by an innate immune system of human milk consisting of oligosaccharides and glycans

J Anim Sci. 2009 Apr;87(13 Suppl):26-34. doi: 10.2527/jas.2008-1347. Epub 2008 Nov 21.


This review discusses the role of human milk glycans in protecting infants, but the conclusion that the human milk glycans constitute an innate immune system whereby the mother protects her offspring may have general applicability in all mammals, including species of commercial importance. Infants that are not breastfed have a greater incidence of severe diarrhea and respiratory diseases than those who are breastfed. In the past, this had been attributed primarily to human milk secretory antibodies. However, the oligosaccharides are major components of human milk, and milk is also rich in other glycans, including glycoproteins, mucins, glycosaminoglycans, and glycolipids. These milk glycans, especially the oligosaccharides, are composed of thousands of components. The milk factor that promotes gut colonization by Bifidobacterium bifidum was found to be a glycan, and such prebiotic characteristics may contribute to protection against infectious agents. However, the ability of human milk glycans to protect the neonate seems primarily to be due to their inhibition of pathogen binding to their host cell target ligands. Many such examples include specific fucosylated oligosaccharides and glycans that inhibit specific pathogens. Most human milk oligosaccharides are fucosylated, and their production depends on fucosyltransferase enzymes; mutations in these fucosyltransferase genes are common and underlie the various Lewis blood types in humans. Variable expression of specific fucosylated oligosaccharides in milk, also a function of these genes (and maternal Lewis blood type), is significantly associated with the risk of infectious disease in breastfed infants. Human milk also contains major quantities and large numbers of sialylated oligosaccharides, many of which are also present in bovine colostrum. These could similarly inhibit several common viral pathogens. Moreover, human milk oligosaccharides strongly attenuate inflammatory processes in the intestinal mucosa. These results support the hypothesis that oligosaccharides and other glycans are the major constituents of an innate immune system of human milk whereby the mother protects her infant from enteric and other pathogens through breastfeeding. These protective glycans may prove useful as a basis for the development of novel prophylactic and therapeutic agents that inhibit disease by mucosal pathogens in many species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Toxins / immunology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / immunology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / microbiology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / virology
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology*
  • Milk, Human / immunology*
  • Oligosaccharides / immunology*
  • Polysaccharides / immunology*


  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Polysaccharides