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Ammonia production by human faecal bacteria, and the enumeration, isolation and characterization of bacteria capable of growth on peptides and amino acids

Anthony J Richardson, Nest McKain and R John Wallace*

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Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen, Bucksburn, Aberdeen, AB21 9SB, UK

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BMC Microbiology 2013, 13:6  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-13-6

Published: 11 January 2013



The products of protein breakdown in the human colon are considered to be detrimental to gut health. Amino acid catabolism leads to the formation of sulfides, phenolic compounds and amines, which are inflammatory and/or precursors to the formation of carcinogens, including N-nitroso compounds. The aim of this study was to investigate the kinetics of protein breakdown and the bacterial species involved.


Casein, pancreatic casein hydrolysate (mainly short-chain peptides) or amino acids were incubated in vitro with suspensions of faecal bacteria from 3 omnivorous and 3 vegetarian human donors. Results from the two donor groups were similar. Ammonia production was highest from peptides, followed by casein and amino acids, which were similar. The amino acids metabolized most extensively were Asp, Ser, Lys and Glu. Monensin inhibited the rate of ammonia production from amino acids by 60% (P = 0.001), indicating the involvement of Gram-positive bacteria. Enrichment cultures were carried out to investigate if, by analogy with the rumen, there was a significant population of asaccharolytic, obligately amino acid-fermenting bacteria (‘hyper-ammonia-producing’ bacteria; HAP) in the colon. Numbers of bacteria capable of growth on peptides or amino acids alone averaged 3.5% of the total viable count, somewhat higher than the rumen. None of these were HAP, however. The species enriched included Clostridium spp., one of which was C. perfringens, Enterococcus, Shigella and Escherichia coli.


Protein fermentation by human faecal bacteria in the absence of sugars not only leads to the formation of hazardous metabolic products, but also to the possible proliferation of harmful bacteria. The kinetics of protein metabolism were similar to the rumen, but HAP bacteria were not found.

Clostridium perfringens; Colonic bacteria; Deamination; Peptide metabolism