New & Noteworthy

Mannan From Heaven

February 25, 2015

Once we started eating the yeast in breads and beer, our microbiota adapted to feast on these mannans raining down on them from heaven. Manna reigning from heaven on the Israelites (Exodus 16), from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250 C.E.

Thousands of years ago, humans encountered very little yeast in their diet. This all changed with the invention of beer and bread.

Now of course we didn’t include the yeast as a carbon source…we just liked fluffy bread and getting hammered. But it was a different story for the bacteria in our gut. They now found the mannans in yeast cell walls raining down on them like manna from heaven.

Unlike the Israelites, who could eat manna, most of our microbiota probably couldn’t use this newfound carbon source. But at some point, the polysaccharide utilization loci (PULs) of a few species changed so that they could now digest the mannans found in yeast cell walls. And, as a new study in Nature by Cuskin and coworkers shows, it was almost certainly a great boon for them.

They found that at least one gram negative bacterium, Bacteroides thetaiotamicron, can live on just the mannans found in the yeast cell walls. This isn’t just a cool story of coevolution either. It might actually help sick people get better one day.

Glycans, like the mannans found in yeast cell walls, have been implicated in autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease. One day doctors may be able to treat and/or prevent diseases like this by providing bacteria that can eliminate these potentially harmful mannans: a probiotic treatment for a terrible disease.

Cuskin and coworkers identified three loci in B. thetaiotamicron, MAN-PUL1, MAN-PUL2, and MAN-PUL3, that were activated in the presence of α-mannan. Deletion experiments showed that MAN-PUL2 was absolutely required for the bacteria to utilize these mannans.

The authors next wanted to determine whether the ability to use yeast cell walls as a food source provided an advantage to these bacteria. For this work they turned to a strain of mice that lacked any of their own gut bacteria.

The authors colonized these gnotobiotic mice with 50:50 mixtures of two different strains of B. thetaiotamicron—wild type and a mutant deleted for all three PULs. They found that in the presence of mannans, the wild type strain won out over the mutant strain and that in the absence of mannans, the opposite was true.

So as we might expect, if you feed mice mannans, bacteria that can break them down do best in the mouse gut. The second result, that mutating the PULs might be an advantage in the absence of glycans, wasn’t expected. This result suggests some energetic cost of having active PULs in the absence of usable mannans.

To better mimic the real world, Cuskin and coworkers also looked at the gut bacteria of these mice when they were fed a high bread diet. In this case, the mutant still won out over wild type but not by as much. Instead of being reduced to 10% as was true in the glycan-free diet, the final proportion of wild type bacteria in guts of mice on the high bread diet was 20%. Modest but potentially significant.

We do not have the space to discuss it here, but the authors next dissected the mannan degradation pathway in fine detail. If you are interested please read it over. It is fascinating.

The authors also analyzed 250 human metagenomic samples and found that 62% of them had PULs similar to the ones found in B. thetaiotamicron. So the majority of the people sampled, but not all, had gut microbiota that could deal with the mannans in yeast cell walls.

Human microbiota have adapted to use the energy from the bits of yeast left in bread and alcoholic beverages. Given how little there is, it might be better to think of it as the filth the peasants collected in Monty Python and the Holy Grail instead of manna. Even though it isn’t much, it has given these bacteria a niche that no one else has (or probably wants).

Still, it has allowed them to at least survive. And if these bacteria can one be repurposed as a treatment for disease like Crohn’s disease, thank goodness they adapted to using these mannans.  

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: glycans , evolution , gut microbiome