Human colonic microbiota: ecology, physiology and metabolic potential of intestinal bacteria

Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl. 1997;222:3-9. doi: 10.1080/00365521.1997.11720708.


In both health and disease, the colonic microbiota plays an important role in several areas of human physiology. This complex assemblage of microorganisms endows great metabolic potential on the large intestine, primarily through its degradative abilities. Many hundreds of different types of bacteria, varying widely in physiology and biochemistry, exist in a multitude of different microhabitats in the lumen of the large gut, the mucin layer and on mucosal surfaces. Both microbiota and host obtain clear benefits from association. For example, growth substrates from diet and body tissues, together with a relatively stable environment for bacteria to proliferate are provided by the host, which in turn has evolved to use butyrate, a bacterial fermentation product, as its principal source of energy for epithelial cells in the distal bowel. The main sources of carbon and energy for intestinal bacteria are complex carbohydrates (starches, non-starch polysaccharides). Carbohydrate metabolism is of great importance in the large intestine, since generically, and in terms of absolute numbers, the vast majority of culturable microorganisms are saccharolytic. The amounts and types of fermentation products formed by colonic bacteria depend on the relative amounts of each substrate available, their chemical structures and compositions, as well as the fermentation strategies (biochemical characteristics and catabolite regulatory mechanisms) of bacteria participating in depolymerization and fermentation of the substrates. Protein breakdown and dissimilatory amino acid metabolism result in the formation of a number of putatively toxic metabolites, including phenols, indoles and amines. Production of these substances is inhibited or repressed in many intestinal microorganisms by a fermentable source of carbohydrate. Owing to the anatomy and physiology of the colon, putrefactive processes become quantitatively more important in the distal bowel, where carbohydrate is more limiting.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amines / metabolism
  • Amino Acids / metabolism
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Colon / microbiology*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / metabolism
  • Dietary Proteins / metabolism
  • Ecosystem
  • Fatty Acids, Volatile / metabolism
  • Fermentation
  • Humans


  • Amines
  • Amino Acids
  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Proteins
  • Fatty Acids, Volatile