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Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are a family of structurally diverse unconjugated glycans that are found in and unique to human breast milk, despite not actually being digestible by human infants. HMOs function as a prebiotic helping to establish commensal bacteria. HMOs also function as anti-adhesives that help prevent the attachment of microbial pathogens to mucosal surfaces.
HMOs have been implicated in modulating responses of the epithelium and of the immune cells, reducing excessive mucosal leukocyte infiltration and activation, and lowering the risk for necrotizing enterocolitis and possibly also providing the infant with sialic acid as a potentially essential nutrient for brain development and cognition.
In experiments designed to test the suitability of HMOs as a prebiotic source of carbon for intestinal bacteria it was discovered that they are highly selective for a commensal bacteria known as Bifidobacteria longum biovar infantis. The presence of genes unique to B. infantis, including co-regulated glycosidases, and its efficiency at using HMOs as a carbon source may imply a co-evolution of HMOs and the genetic capability of select bacteria to utilize them.
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