Exocrine pancreas glutamate secretion help to sustain enterocyte nutritional needs under protein restriction

Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2018 Apr 1;314(4):G517-G536. doi: 10.1152/ajpgi.00135.2017. Epub 2017 Nov 22.


Glutamine (Gln) is the most concentrated amino acid in blood and considered conditionally essential. Its requirement is increased during physiological stress, such as malnutrition or illness, despite its production by muscle and other organs. In the malnourished state, Gln has been suggested to have a trophic effect on the exocrine pancreas and small intestine. However, the Gln transport capacity, the functional relationship of these two organs, and the potential role of the Gln-glutamate (Glu) cycle are unknown. We observed that pancreatic acinar cells express lower levels of Glu than Gln transporters. Consistent with this expression pattern, the rate of Glu influx into acinar cells was approximately sixfold lower than that of Gln. During protein restriction, acinar cell glutaminase expression was increased and Gln accumulation was maintained. Moreover, Glu secretion by acinar cells into pancreatic juice and thus into the lumen of the small intestine was maintained. In the intestinal lumen, Glu absorption was preserved and Glu dehydrogenase expression was augmented, potentially providing the substrates for increasing energy production via the TCA cycle. Our findings suggest that one mechanism by which Gln exerts a positive effect on exocrine pancreas and small intestine involves the Gln metabolism in acinar cells and the secretion of Glu into the small intestine lumen. The exocrine pancreas acinar cells not only avidly accumulate Gln but metabolize Gln to generate energy and to synthesize Glu for secretion in the pancreatic juice. Secreted Glu is suggested to play an important role during malnourishment in sustaining small intestinal homeostasis. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Glutamine (Gln) has been suggested to have a trophic effect on exocrine pancreas and small intestine in malnourished states, but the mechanism is unknown. In this study, we suggest that this trophic effect derives from an interorgan relationship between exocrine pancreas and small intestine for Gln-glutamate (Glu) utilization involving the uptake and metabolism of Gln in acinar cells and secretion of Glu into the lumen of the small intestine.

Keywords: SNAT5/Slc38a5; acinar cells; enterocytes; glutamate dehydrogenase; glutaminase 2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acinar Cells / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Biological Transport / physiology
  • Diet, Protein-Restricted
  • Enterocytes / metabolism*
  • Glutamate Dehydrogenase / metabolism
  • Glutamine* / blood
  • Glutamine* / metabolism
  • Intestine, Small* / metabolism
  • Intestine, Small* / physiopathology
  • Malnutrition / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Pancreas, Exocrine* / metabolism
  • Pancreas, Exocrine* / physiopathology
  • Pancreatic Juice / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar


  • Glutamine
  • Glutamate Dehydrogenase