Professor Bruce German of the UC Davis Food Science & Technology department has spent the past two decades studying lactation and its role in evolution. Among the findings of a group of scientists from across the campus: human milk contains a large proportion of oligosaccharides — short chains of sugar molecules — that babies can’t digest, so they “run right through them.” (If you have a certain kind of diaper-changing experience, you know what this looks like.) The question was, why? German joined with Professor Carlito Lebrilla from the UC Davis chemistry department and School of Medicine to analyze these amazingly complex oligosaccharides.
German suspected that these oligosaccharides existed to nourish bacteria, not the baby. He turned to colleague Professor David Mills, a UC Davis molecular biologist, to find out which bacteria could digest these human milk oligosaccharides.