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Mother lode

Superhero sugars in breast milk make the newborn gut safe for beneficial bacteria

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2:05pm, December 27, 2013

POWER PUNCH  Certain sugar molecules in human breast milk act a lot like superheroes, fostering beneficial microbes and banishing harmful ones.

A bonanza of potent disease-fighting compounds has been discovered in a surprisingly common source — the breasts of every nursing mother on the planet. Human milk, the only substance that evolved to feed and protect us, seems to contain a trove of medicines just now being unlocked by scientists.

“We go down to the bottom of the ocean to find new compounds and test them out against diseases,” says nutritional scientist Lars Bode of the University of California, San Diego. “But if we just look at the natural compounds in human milk, we’ll be surprised at what we find.”

At the forefront of breast milk’s potential lies a diverse set of sugar molecules called human milk oligosaccharides. Although sculpted by 200 million years of mammalian evolution, the sugars don’t feed infants at all. Instead, they play the role of microbial managers, acting as liaisons between the infant’s newly available intestinal real estate and the throngs of microbes that seek to call it home.

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