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How bacteria with a sweet tooth may keep us healthy

Some gut bacterial strains are specifically adapted to use sugars in our gut lining to aid colonisation, potentially giving them a major influence over our gut health.

We live in a symbiotic relationship with trillions of bacteria in our gut. They help us digest food, prime our immune system and keep out pathogens. In return we provide a suitable environment for them to grow, including a layer of mucus that coats the gut lining. Mucus is formed from proteins called mucins that have sugars associated with them. These form a diverse and complex range of structures. Mucins provide attachment sites and a source of nutrition for some bacteria, but not all species are allowed to take advantage of this. The complexity of the sugar structures in the mucins is thought to be how our bodies specify which bacteria can set up home, but exactly how this works isn't yet known.

New findings from the Institute of Food Research, which is strategically funded by BBSRC, are providing insights into the interaction between bacteria and mucins, and how the specificity of these interactions affects health. Dr Nathalie Juge and her team at the IFR have shown that the ability to use mucins in the human gut varies between different gut bacteria strains. Their study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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