It turns out that leafy greens are good for much more than the things we usually think of – providing minerals and phytonutrients. It has been recently discovered that there is a special sugar in leafy greens that feed our beneficial gut bacteria and protect us from pathogens.
The research, published in the journal Science Daily, 2016, indicates that a previously unknown enzyme is used by bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms to feed on the abundant sugar, sulfoquinovose (SQ) which is found in green vegetables.
Dr Goddard-Borger from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute said,
Every time we eat leafy green vegetables we consume significant amounts of SQ sugars, which are used as an energy source by good gut bacteria… Bacteria in the gut, such as crucial protective strains of E. coli, use SQ as a source of energy. E. coli provides a protective barrier that prevents growth and colonisation by bad bacteria, because the good bugs are taking up all the habitable real estate.
Professor Spencer Williams from the Bio21 Institute and University of Melbourne said,
We discovered the enzyme YihQ, which is used by bacteria to absorb and metabolise these sulfur-containing sugars as food.
Sulfur is critical for building proteins, the essential components of all living organisms. SQ is the only sugar molecule which contains sulfur, and ‘digestion’ of the molecule by bacteria releases sulfur into the environment, where it re-enters the global ‘sulfur cycle’ to be reused by other organisms.
This work answers a 50-year mystery that has surrounded how sulfur – an element essential for life on Earth – was used and recycled by living organisms. What is remarkable is that the YihQ enzyme was hiding in plain sight and is produced by the humble bacterium E. coli, present in nearly every biologist’s laboratory.
While this is exciting news for us real foodies, because we can use this information to make sure we eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, the researchers are excited because they feel they can use this information to create highly specific antibiotics that can attack the harmful forms of these microbes, while leaving the gut flora intact.
That would be a good thing in this age of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
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