Everyone occasionally has the sensation of a traffic jam in the digestive system. The human gastrointestinal tract, although hardy, can be stalled by a variety of conditions. Sometimes our metabolism slows down with age, and foods that we used to enjoy become irritating. Various illnesses and medications can also contribute to digestive upset. In the field of microbiology, where probiotics such as Bifidobacteria are studied, many discoveries about the microflora of the colon have helped to explain how food is broken down within the human body. With the assistance of Bifidobacteria or Bifidus and other similar micro-organisms, our bodies are able to metabolize sugars and regulate the acid versus alkali balance or pH factor of the GI tract. By encouraging helpful microflora to colonize the GI tract, a mechanism for boosting digestive functionality has been confirmed by many scientific studies.
Bifidus is a genus or group of species, with 32 species currently known in this group. Several of the species are better-known due to their frequent use in foods such as dairy and bakery products; Bifidobacteria Breve (B Breve), B Longum, B Dentium, B Lactis and B Infantis are a few of the species in this group. Bifidus or Bifidobacteria at the microscopic level look like small trees with spatulas or rods for branches. These microflora contribute to the degradation of undigested polysaccharides in the human colon; in other words, they act as decomposers along the roadway of the digestive system. Without the healthy functioning of Bifidus bacteria, irritation and irregularity can become more than an occasional problem. Moreover, the metabolism of the host is somewhat dependent on the metabolism of the microflora in the intestines and colon. Without their ability to break down partially-digested food, our bodies would lack the necessary tools to achieve this task.
According to a 2006 study at the University of Belgium, Bifidobacteria have been found to contain genes that encode enzymes involved in the production of acids from carbohydrates. This is one of the major functions of the human digestive system, which happens to be conducted through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. From sugars in the intestine and colon, Bifidus bacteria produce metabolytes including acetic acid, lactic acid, succinic acid, formic acid, and ethanol. Changes in the bacteria's end product formation can be related to the specific rate of sugar consumption, according the the Belgian study. Bifidobacteria preferentially use the short fractions of oligofructose rapidly. However, other microflora prefer to break down different types of sugar. In this manner, a combination of bacteria residing within the human gut zooms in on their various preferred fuel types in order to keep things moving along the roadways of the digestive system.
By adding acid to the GI tract as an endproduct of their metabolism, helpful bacteria appear to reduce the opportunities for pathogens to take hold and exploit this environment. Many pathogens prefer a lower acid (or higher pH) environment. With an increase in the Bifidus bacteria's metabolic activity, a decrease in harmful bacteria appears to occur. Therefore, diet additives that encourage the diversity of microflora in the colon are also helpful in eliminating toxins efficiently, thanks to the impressive metabolism of certain bacterial strains.
The metabolism of Bifidus bacteria was first discovered in 1966 by a scientist named Chiappini. Since that time, genome projects have isolated particular genes and enzymes within bacteria that may be helpful to human digestion and metabolism (Duncan, et al, 2002 and 2004). More recent studies where Bifidus bacteria are deliberately encouraged to overpopulate by fermentation have isolated some of their strengths and weaknesses in metabolizing certain types of sugars. With this type of research generating new discoveries daily, opportunities are exploding for therapeutic and preventative food supplements to be found among the various strains of Bifidus or Bifidobacteria.
(1) Roel Van der Meulen, Tom Adriany, Kristof Verbrugghe, and Luc De Vuyst. "Kinetic Analysis of Bifidobacterial Metabolism Reveals a Minor Role for Succinic Acid in the Regeneration of NAD+ through Its Growth-Associated Production." 2006. Research Group of Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology (IMDO), Department of Applied Biological Sciences and Engineering, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium.
(2) Chiappini, M. G. 1966. "Carbon dioxide fixation in some strains of the species Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium constellatum, Actinomyces bovis and Actinomyces israelii." Annals of Microbiology. 16:25-32.
(3) De Vries, W., and H. Stouthamer. 1968. "Fermentation of glucose, lactose, galactose, mannitol, and xylose by bifidobacteria." Journal of Bacteriology. 96:472-478.
(4) Duncan, S. H., A. Barcenilla, C. S. Stewart, S. E. Pryde, and H. J. Flint. 2002. "Acetate utilization and butyryl coenzyme A (CoA): acetate-CoA transferase in butyrate-producing bacteria from the human large intestine." Applied Environ. Microbiology. 68:5186-5190.
(5) Duncan, S. H., P. Louis, and H. J. Flint. 2004. "Lactate-utilizing bacteria, isolated from human feces, that produce butyrate as a major fermentation product." Applied Environ. Microbiology. 70:5810-5817.
(6) Fooks, L. J., R. Fuller, and G. R. Gibson. 1999. "Prebiotics, probiotics and human gut microbiology." International Dairy Journal. 9:53-61.
(7) Franks, A. H., H. J. M. Harmsen, G. C. Raangs, G. J. Jansen, F. Schut, and G. W. Welling. 1998. "Variations of bacterial populations in human feces measured by fluorescent in situ hybridization with group-specific 16S rRNA-targeted oligonucleotide probes." Applied Environ. Microbiology. 64:3336-3345.
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