Researchers find link between infant gut health and delivery type

21 Jun 2023

Image: © kieferpix/

Led by a team of Irish scientists, the MicrobeMom project has unlocked secrets around the transfer of good gut bacteria from mother to child.

Researchers in Ireland have completed what they are calling the most in-depth investigation into the transfer of healthy gut bacteria from a mother to an infant, opening up opportunities for the development of targeted probiotic supplements to support child health.

Known as MicrobeMom, the project that the study is a part of shows that the transfer of gut bacteria from a mother to an infant is a common phenomenon and is strongly influenced by external factors including mode of delivery and exposure to antibiotics in labour.

It particularly focused on one type of gut bacteria called Bifidobacterium, which the researchers say is a major component of health from infancy through to adulthood.

MicrobeMom is a joint project led by researchers based at APC Microbiome Ireland, a Science Foundation Ireland research centre focused on gastrointestinal health, PrecisionBiotics Group, University College Dublin Perinatal Research Centre and the National Institute for Bioprocessing, Research and Training.

Researchers found that Bifidobacterium are present from early stages in infant guts with a range of health and functional benefits, including reducing the development of allergies and asthma.

The findings could support the development of targeted probiotic supplements based on these bacteria, with potential benefits to boost immune systems, increase microbial infection resistance, fight disease and even aid digestion.

“The low level of strain transfer detected in our initial study highlights that strain transfer can be used as a means of getting probiotic strains to the guts of infants through their administration to mothers,” said Prof Paul Cotter, principal investigator at APC.

“While the particular [Bifidobacterium] strain did not transfer very efficiently, it did provide very valuable ‘proof of concept data’ prompting us to further explore the possibility of beneficial supplement intervention during pregnancy and transfer to the child.”

The study also detected that delivery mode is a key factor in effective strain transmission with greater microbe diversity observed in vaginal births. The highest transfer rates were linked to spontaneous labour, while exposure to antibiotics during labour significantly reduced the number of strains shared.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications last month.

Prof Fionnuala McAuliffe, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at UCD and director of the Perinatal Research Centre, said the in-depth mapping was “significant and exciting”.

By using our combined approach of metagenomic sequencing with culture and whole genome sequencing, our study has provided the most in-depth investigation to date of the transmission of Bifidobacterium from mother to infant,” she said.

“We have identified key clinical factors associated with beneficial transfer of Bifidobacterium from mother to baby, such as spontaneous vaginal birth.”

Last month, APC researchers revealed that they developed a detailed structural atlas of a prominent class of gut virus called crassvirus to learn more about its role in shaping human health.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic