Nutrition, population growth and disease: a short history of lactose


  • Harald Brüssow

    Corresponding author
    • Nestlé Research Center Lausanne, BioAnalytical Science Department, Food and Health Microbiology, Lausanne, Switzerland
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Food and nutrition have played a crucial role in biological evolution. Lactation in mammals was one key invention. A central role in milk is played by lactose, otherwise an exotic sugar in nature. Lactose digestion needs the induction of specialized gut enzymes. This enzyme is shut off in a precisely timed developmental step leading to lactose malabsorption promoting weaning in the young and ovulation in the mother. The lactose–lactase system could thus regulate optimal birth spacing in land mammals. The domestication of cattle promoted milk as a food item also for adult nutrition. This was only possible by two further key inventions: the concomitant domestication of lactic acid bacteria which ferment the non-digestible lactose to the easily absorbed lactic acid and the mutation to lactase persistence (LP) in adults from dairy societies. This mutation represents one of the strongest selected loci of the human genome. Since no crucial nutritional selective advantage is conferred by LP, its dominance might be the result of indirect effects like the spread of cattle pathogens into humans. Lactase is also temporarily lost in rotavirus and Escherichia coli childhood diarrhoea and persistent diarrhoea is consequently best treated with lactose-free diets.