Enumeration of human colonic bacteria producing phenolic and indolic compounds: effects of pH, carbohydrate availability and retention time on dissimilatory aromatic amino acid metabolism

J Appl Bacteriol. 1996 Sep;81(3):288-302. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2672.1996.tb04331.x.


Concentrations of phenolic compounds in human gut contents were more than fourfold higher in the distal colon (6.2 mmol kg-1) compared to the proximal bowel (1.4 mmol kg-1). Tryptophan metabolites were never found in more than trace amounts in large intestinal contents and phenol substituted fatty acids were the major products of aromatic amino acid fermentation that accumulated in the proximal colon, whereas phenol and p-cresol were more important in the distal gut, accounting for 70% of all products of dissimilatory aromatic amino acid metabolism. In vitro incubations of colonic material showed that phenol was produced most rapidly (1.0 mumol g-1 h-1), whereas indole was formed comparatively slowly (0.06 mumol g-1 h-1). Most probable number (MPN) estimations demonstrated that large populations of phenol and indole producing bacteria occur in the large intestine (range log10 9.8-11.5 (g dry wt faeces)-1, mean 10.6, N = 7). With respect to phenolic compounds, phenylacetate and phenylpropionate producers predominated, while indoleacetate-forming bacteria were the major tryptophan-utilizing organisms. Quantitation of products of dissimilatory aromatic amino acid metabolism in MPN tubes showed that phenol and phenylpropionate mainly accumulated at low sample dilutions, whereas phenylacetate, p-cresol, indoleacetate and indolepropionate were formed in greatest amounts at high sample dilutions. The significance of pH and carbohydrate availability with respect to aromatic amino acid metabolism was shown in batch culture fermentation studies, where net production of phenolic compounds by mixed populations of intestinal bacteria was reduced by approximately 33% during growth at pH 5.5 compared to pH 6.8, and by 60% in the presence of a fermentable carbohydrate. Experiments with 16 species of intestinal bacteria belonging to six different genera showed that environmental factors such as low pH and high carbohydrate availability markedly reduced dissimilatory aromatic amino acid metabolism in some organisms, but stimulated this process in others. A three-stage continuous culture model of the colon was used to investigate the effect of system retention time (27.1 or 66.7 h) on aromatic amino acid fermentation. Qualitative and quantitative increases in phenol production occurred from vessel 1 to vessel 3 in this model. Concentrations of phenolic compounds in vessel 3 were three times greater at R = 66.7 h compared to R = 27.1 h. Phenol and p-cresol were not detected in vessel 1, though formation of these metabolites increased from vessel 2 to vessel 3, in a pattern similar to that observed in the distal colon.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / analysis
  • Amino Acids / metabolism*
  • Autopsy
  • Bacteria / growth & development*
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Feces / chemistry
  • Feces / microbiology
  • Fermentation
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Indoles / analysis
  • Indoles / metabolism*
  • Intestine, Large / metabolism*
  • Intestine, Large / microbiology*
  • Phenols / analysis
  • Phenols / metabolism*


  • Amino Acids
  • Indoles
  • Phenols