Introduction: Branched chain fatty acids (BCFA) are found in the normal term human newborn's gut, deposited as major components of vernix caseosa ingested during late fetal life. We tested the hypothesis that premature infants' lack of exposure to gastrointestinal (GI) BCFA is associated with their microbiota and risk for necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) using a neonatal rat model.
Methods: Pups were collected one day before scheduled birth. The pups were exposed to asphyxia and cold stress to induce NEC. Pups were assigned to one of three experimental treatments. DF (dam-fed); Control, hand-fed rat milk substitute; BCFA, hand-fed rat milk substitute with 20%w/w BCFA. Total fat was equivalent (11%wt) for both the Control and BCFA groups. Cecal microbiota were characterized by 16S rRNA gene pyrosequencing, and intestinal injury, ileal cytokine and mucin gene expression, interleukin-10 (IL-10) peptide immunohistochemistry, and BCFA uptake in ileum phospholipids, serum and liver were assessed.
Results: NEC incidence was reduced by over 50% in the BCFA group compared to the Control group as assessed in ileal tissue; microbiota differed among all groups. BCFA-fed pups harbored greater levels of BCFA-associated Bacillus subtilis and Pseudomonas aeruginosa compared to Controls. Bacillus subtilis levels were five-fold greater in healthy pups compared to pups with NEC. BCFA were selectively incorporated into ileal phospholipids, serum and liver tissue. IL-10 expression increased three-fold in the BCFA group versus Controls and no other inflammatory or mucosal mRNA markers changed.
Conclusion: At constant dietary fat level, BCFA reduce NEC incidence and alter microbiota composition. BCFA are also incorporated into pup ileum where they are associated with enhanced IL-10 and may exert other specific effects.