Fermentation in the human large intestine: its physiologic consequences and the potential contribution of prebiotics

J Clin Gastroenterol. 2011 Nov:45 Suppl:S120-7. doi: 10.1097/MCG.0b013e31822fecfe.


The human large intestine harbors a complex microbiota containing many hundreds of different bacterial species. Although structure/function relationships between different components of the microbiota are unclear, this complex multicellular entity plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis in the body. Many of the physiologic properties of the microbiota can be attributed to fermentation and the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), particularly acetate, propionate, and butyrate. In healthy people, fermentation processes are largely controlled by the amounts and different types of substrate, particularly complex carbohydrates that are accessible to bacteria in the colonic ecosystem. However, other factors impact on bacterial metabolism in the large gut, including large bowel transit time, the availability of inorganic terminal electron acceptors, such as nitrate and sulfate, and gut pH. They all affect the types and levels of SCFA that can be formed by the microbiota. This is important because to a large extent, acetate, propionate, and butyrate have varying physiologic effects in different body tissues. Prebiotics such as galactooligosaccharides together with inulins and their fructooligosaccharide derivatives have been shown to modify the species composition of the colonic microbiota, and in various degrees, to manifest several health-promoting properties related to enhanced mineral absorption, laxation, potential anticancer properties, lipid metabolism, and anti-inflammatory and other immune effects, including atopic disease. Many of these phenomena can be linked to their digestion and SCFA production by bacteria in the large gut.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Volatile / biosynthesis*
  • Fatty Acids, Volatile / metabolism
  • Fermentation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intestine, Large / metabolism*
  • Intestine, Large / microbiology*
  • Metagenome / physiology
  • Prebiotics*


  • Fatty Acids, Volatile
  • Prebiotics