Prebiotics are non-digestible substrates that stimulate the growth of beneficial microbial populations in the intestine, especially Bifidobacterium species. Among them, fructo- and galacto-oligosaccharides are commonly used in the food industry, especially as a supplement for infant formulas. Mechanistic details on the enrichment of bifidobacteria by these prebiotics are important to understand the effects of these dietary interventions. In this study the consumption of galactooligosaccharides was studied for 22 isolates of Bifidobacterium longum subsp. infantis, one of the most representative species in the infant gut microbiota. In general all isolates showed a vigorous growth on these oligosaccharides, but consumption of larger galactooligosaccharides was variable. Bifidobacterium infantis ATCC 15697 has five genes encoding β-galactosidases, and three of them were induced during bacterial growth on commercial galactooligosaccharides. Recombinant β-galactosidases from B. infantis ATCC 15697 displayed different preferences for β-galactosides such as 4' and 6'-galactobiose, and four β-galactosidases in this strain released monosaccharides from galactooligosaccharides. Finally, we determined the amounts of short chain fatty acids produced by strain ATCC 15697 after growth on different prebiotics. We observed that biomass and product yields of substrate were higher for lactose and galactooligosaccharides, but the amount of acids produced per cell was larger after growth on human milk oligosaccharides. These results provide a molecular basis for galactooligosaccharide consumption in B. infantis, and also represent evidence for physiological differences in the metabolism of prebiotics that might have a differential impact on the host.
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