Biochemistry (Moscow)

, Volume 78, Issue 7, pp 771–785 | Cite as

Glycobiology of human milk

  • D. S. NewburgEmail author


Glycans are characteristic components of milk, and each species has unique patterns of specific carbohydrates. Human milk is unusually rich in glycans, with the major components being lactose and oligosaccharides, representing approximately 6.8 and 1% of the milk, respectively. Other sources of glycans in human milk include monosaccharides, mucins, glycosaminoglycans, glycoproteins, glycopeptides, and glycolipids. In human milk, the presence and patterns of these glycans vary depending upon the stage of lactation and the maternal genes and their genetic polymorphisms that control glycosyl transferases. The synthesis of milk glycans utilizes a significant portion of the metabolic energy that the mother expends when producing her milk, but other than lactose, these glycans contribute little to the nutritional needs of the infant. The data herein support several functions. 1) Many human milk glycans inhibit pathogens from binding to the intestinal mucosa. 2) Human milk glycans attenuate inflammation. 3) Glycans also directly stimulate the growth of beneficial (mutualist) bacteria of the microbiota (formerly considered commensal microflora of the intestine); these mutualists and their fermentation products can, in turn, (a) inhibit pathogens, (b) modulate signaling and inflammation, and (c) the fermentation products can be absorbed and utilized as a source of dietary calories. These functions can help direct and support intestinal postnatal growth, development, and ontogeny of colonization. The many functions of the milk glycans may synergistically protect infants from disease. Hence, human milk glycans and their homologs may serve as novel prophylactic or therapeutic agents for a diverse range of deleterious conditions.

Key words

human milk glycans lactose oligosaccharides glycoproteins mucins glycosaminoglycans glycolipid 





human milk oligosaccharides






N-acetylneuraminic acid


N-glycolylneuraminic acid






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© Pleiades Publishing, Ltd. 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyProgram in GlycobiologyChestnut HillUSA

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