Can the health of a pregnant woman’s gut influence her baby’s development?

Dr Caroline Thum.


This is just one of the questions PhD graduate Caroline Thum is attempting to answer through her research. The mother of one has found consumption of complex sugars from goat milk have a positive impact on the composition of gut bacteria in mice and is investigating whether the same is true for human babies.

She says the food we eat has a significant effect on the types of bacteria that make up our gut microbiota and on their metabolism. Eating certain types of food has been shown to be the most effective way to improve and maintain a healthy gut microbiota and gut function.

“The microbiota that colonise our gut as babies can have a significant impact on the development of our gut and our immune system and consequently on the incidence of food allergies, obesity and cardiovascular diseases later in life” she says. “The main source of these bacteria is our mother’s own microbiota. Before and during birth, we are exposed to the bacteria in her vagina and faeces, which begins the process of colonisation of our gut.”

Dr Thum says that process continues, even after the baby is born. Breast-fed infants receive additional bacteria and complex, immune-system enriching, sugars called oligosaccharides, from their mother’s milk.Therefore improving the mother’s microbiota may also help prevent diseases in her child.

Dr Thum’s research shows New Zealand goat milk contains oligosaccharides similar to those found in human milk.

She produced a goat milk oligosaccharide-enriched fraction to test their effects using a mouse model.

In the laboratory, the fraction was able to increase the number and function of specific Bifidobacteria strains in isolated samples of baby faeces. The enriched fraction was also fed to pregnant and lactating mice, with both the mother mouse and her offspring benefiting in terms of the composition and metabolism of the gut microbiota.

Dr Thum is continuing her work as a Postdoctoral Fellow at AgResearch., She is part of AgResearch’s Food Nutrition and Health Team in Palmerston North

“My goal now is to understand the benefits of consuming these oligosaccharides on gut function and the consequences for brain development. This could enable us to help formula-fed infants get similar benefits to breast-fed infants by adding goat milk oligosaccharides to their diet. An extension of this work could be to investigate sheep milk oligosaccharides.”

Her work will support the development of premium products for consumers, adding value to a fast growing industry in New Zealand

Dr Thum’s work was carried out at AgResearch and funded by the Riddet Institute national Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE). Part of this work has been done in collaboration with Professor Kikuji Itoh, a microbiologist from the University of Tokyo, Japan.

Related articles

Improving health outcomes for mother and baby