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The Role of Protein and Free Amino Acids on Intake, Metabolism, and Gut Microbiome: A Comparison Between Breast-Fed and Formula-Fed Rhesus Monkey Infants.

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Background: Compared to breast-fed (BF), formula-fed (FF) infants exhibit more rapid weight gain, a different fecal microbial profile, as well as elevated serum insulin, insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Since infant formula contains more protein and lower free amino acids than breast milk, it is thought that protein and/or free amino acids may be key factors that explain phenotypic differences between BF and FF infants. Methods: Newborn rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) were either exclusively BF or fed regular formula or reduced protein formula either supplemented or not with a mixture of amino acids. Longitudinal sampling and clinical evaluation were performed from birth to 16 weeks including anthropometric measurements, intake records, collection of blood for hematology, serum biochemistry, hormones, and metabolic profiling, collection of urine for metabolic profiling, and collection of feces for 16s rRNA fecal microbial community profiling. Results: Reducing protein in infant formula profoundly suppressed intake, lowered weight gain and improved the FF-specific metabolic phenotype in the first month of age. This time-dependent change paralleled an improvement in serum insulin. All lower protein FF groups showed reduced protein catabolism with lower levels of blood urea nitrogen (BUN), urea, ammonia, albumin, creatinine, as well as lower excretion of creatinine in urine compared to infants fed regular formula. Levels of fecal microbes (Bifidobacterium and Ruminococcus from the Ruminococcaceae family), that are known to have varying ability to utilize complex carbohydrates, also increased with protein reduction. Adding free amino acids to infant formula did not alter milk intake or fecal microbial composition, but did significantly increase urinary excretion of amino acids and nitrogen-containing metabolites. However, despite the lower protein intake, these infants still exhibited a distinct FF-specific metabolic phenotype characterized by accelerated weight gain, higher levels of insulin and C-peptide as well as elevated amino acids including BCAA, lysine, methionine, threonine and asparagine. Conclusions: Reducing protein and adding free amino acids to infant formula resulted in growth and metabolic performance of infants that were more similar to BF infants, but was insufficient to reverse the FF-specific accelerated growth and insulin-inducing high BCAA phenotype.

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