FFHI Researchers Elucidate the Complex Sugar Structures in Human and Bovine Milk


Glycobiology, the study of oligosaccharides or complex sugars that decorate all of our body’s cells, is one of the most exciting areas of research and discovery today. Because of the complexity of these sugar structures, which help our cells communicate, send signals, and bind to one another and other organisms, glycobiology has only recently come into the spotlight. The development of technologies to measure, identify, and characterize oligosaccharides in different biological fluids and tissues has been a major challenge that was only recently overcome. 

Glycobiology as it applies to human milk is of particular interest in the broader research community due to recent discoveries on the connection of milk oligosaccharides and their crucial roles in establishing and supporting a healthy microbial community in the gastrointestinal tracts of developing infants, among a slew of other beneficial health functions. Part of the health benefit of mother’s milk for infants is delivered by these complex sugars, which help protect the infant from invading pathogenic bacteria and viruses while selectively enriching the protective microbiota that shapes intestinal and immune development in the growing infant.

As part of the Milk Bioactives and Functional Glycobiology Programs of the Foods for Health Institute, researchers Carlito Lebrilla, professor and chair of the UC Davis Chemistry Department, and Bruce German, professor of Food Science & Technology and director of the Foods for Health Institute, have recently elucidated the human and bovine milk glycomes. Using novel and advanced mass spectrometry-based methods and oligosaccharide separation techniques the team has not only characterized the variety and diversity of oligosaccharides in human and bovine milk in structural detail but has even built annotated libraries of these complex structures.

Mass spectrometry is a powerful technology for analyzing complex structures such as oligosaccharides found in biological samples, it is made even more powerful by the use of libraries that once established can be incorporated into more advanced, and high-throughput analytical techniques. The group has a long-term strategic collaboration with Rudolf Grimm, adjunct professor of the Food Science & Technology Department, and Director of Science and Technology at Agilent Technologies. This partnership has enabled the development of novel miniature devices that capture all of the technological innovation developed in the Lebrilla Lab onto a credit-card sized chip that is now commercially available through Agilent Technologies. Now reseachers all over the world can use this new chip-based device to analyze all of the oligosaccharide structures in milk quickly and accurately.

This work has already made a significant impact on health research fields such as treatment and prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis, a devastating infection of the gastrointestinal tract that can lead to death, in premature infants. The group’s work on the impact and importance of milk oligosaccharides has also been featured in the New York Times and the prestigious scientific journal Nature

The elucidation of the human and bovine milk glycomes is a scientific breakthrough that has already enabled and will continue to have a significant impact on the study of these beneficial molecules and how they can be developed into novel ways of improving health not just in infants but in all humans. The benefits of human milk can be translated to foods and supplements containing milk oligosaccharides from bovine milk that are structurally and functionally similar to the protective oligosaccharides in human milk. With both the human and bovine glycomes elucidated, the many potential therapeutic and diagnostic applications of these unique molecules in already under way.