Oligosaccharides, compounds that are composed of 2-10 monosaccharide residues, are major carbohydrate sources in habitats populated by lactobacilli. Moreover, oligosaccharide metabolism is essential for ecological fitness of lactobacilli. Disaccharide metabolism by lactobacilli is well understood; however, few data on the metabolism of higher oligosaccharides are available. Research on the ecology of intestinal microbiota as well as the commercial application of prebiotics has shifted the interest from (digestible) disaccharides to (indigestible) higher oligosaccharides. This review provides an overview on oligosaccharide metabolism in lactobacilli. Emphasis is placed on maltodextrins, isomalto-oligosaccharides, fructo-oligosaccharides, galacto-oligosaccharides, and raffinose-family oligosaccharides. Starch is also considered. Metabolism is discussed on the basis of metabolic studies related to oligosaccharide metabolism, information on the cellular location and substrate specificity of carbohydrate transport systems, glycosyl hydrolases and phosphorylases, and the presence of metabolic genes in genomes of 38 strains of lactobacilli. Metabolic pathways for disaccharide metabolism often also enable the metabolism of tri- and tetrasaccharides. However, with the exception of amylase and levansucrase, metabolic enzymes for oligosaccharide conversion are intracellular and oligosaccharide metabolism is limited by transport. This general restriction to intracellular glycosyl hydrolases differentiates lactobacilli from other bacteria that adapted to intestinal habitats, particularly Bifidobacterium spp.
Keywords: Lactobacillus; fructo-oligosaccharides; galacto-oligosaccharides; isomalto-oligosaccharides; metabolism; prebiotic; raffinose-family oligosaccharides; starch.