Gut Microbiota Regulates Dietary Fat Digestion And Absorption

Gut microbes facilitate production and secretion of digestive enzymes into the small bowel, according to a new study.

The majority of research on the gut microbiome has focused on bacteria in the large intestine, but this study — one of a few to concentrate on microbes in the upper gastrointestinal tract — shows how the typical calorie-dense western diet can induce expansion of microbes that promote the digestion and absorption of high-fat foods.

Previous studies have shown that these bacteria can multiply within 24 to 48 hours in the small bowel in response to consumption of high-fat foods. Those digestive enzymes break down dietary fat, enabling the rapid absorption of calorie-dense foods.

Bioactive Compounds

Concurrently, the microbes release bioactive compounds. These compounds stimulate the absorptive cells in the intestine to package and transport fat for absorption. Over time, the steady presence of these microbes can lead to over-nutrition and obesity.

“These bacteria are part of an orchestrated series of events that make lipid absorption more efficient. Few people have focused on the microbiome of the small intestine, but this is where most vitamins and other micronutrients are digested and absorbed. Our study is one of the first to show that specific small-bowel microbes directly regulate both digestion and absorption of lipids. This could have significant clinical applications, especially for the prevention and treatment of obesity and cardiovascular disease,”

said senior author Eugene B. Chang, MD, the Martin Boyer Professor of Medicine and director of the NIH Digestive Diseases Research Core Center at the University of Chicago Medicine.

High-fat Diet, No Weight Gain

The goals of the study were to find out if microbes were required for digestion and absorption of fats, to begin to learn which microbes were involved, and to assess the role of diet-induced microbes on the digestion and uptake of fats.

The study involved mice that were germ-free, bred in isolated chambers and harboring no intestinal bacteria, and mice that were “specific pathogen free (SPF),” meaning healthy but harboring common non-disease causing microbes.

The germ-free mice, even when fed a high-fat diet, were unable to digest or absorb fatty foods. They did not gain weight.

Instead, they had elevated lipid levels in their stool.

SPF mice that received a high-fat diet did gain weight. This diet quickly boosted the abundance of certain microbes in the small intestine, including microbes from the Clostridiaceae and Peptostreptococcaceae families.

A member of Clostridiaceae was found to specifically impact fat absorption. The abundance of other bacterial families decreased on a high-fat diet including Bifidobacteriacaea and Bacteriodacaea, which are commonly associated with leanness.

Implications For Obesity

When germ-free mice were subsequently introduced to microbes that contribute to fat digestion, they quickly gained the ability to absorb lipids.

“Our study found that, at least in mice, a high-fat diet can profoundly alter the microbial make-up of the small intestine. Certain dietary pressures, such as calorie-dense foods, attract specific bacterial strains into the small intestine. These microbes are then able to allow the host to digest this high-fat diet and absorb fats. That can even impact extra-intestinal organs such as the pancreas.”

Chang said.

“This work has important implications in developing approaches to combat obesity,”

the authors conclude. This includes decreasing the abundance or activity of certain microbes that promote fat absorption, or increasing the abundance of microbes that may inhibit fat uptake.

Martinez-Guryn, Kristina et al.
Small Intestine Microbiota Regulate Host Digestive and Absorptive Adaptive Responses to Dietary Lipids
Cell Host & Microbe, Volume 23, Issue 4, 458 – 469.e5

Image: François-Joseph Lapointe, Université de Montréal. CC BY