Scientist who discovered HMOs

History of Human Milk Oligosaccharides

The discovery of these non-digestible sugars (HMOs), which make up 10 percent of the dry weight of human milk, went through a metamorphosis of sorts over the decades as studies built upon each other like scaffolding, in one fascinating discovery after another.

Interest in milk sugars started more than 100 years ago with the eventual discovery of HMOs driven by both scientists and physicians, each with different perspectives and interests.

Pediatricians and microbiologists were trying to understand the observed health benefits associated with human milk feeding. Chemists were trying to characterize the carbohydrates uniquely found in human milk.

Breast-Fed Infants Have Higher Suvival Rates

By the end of the 19th century: mortality rates were as high as 20-30% in the first year of an infant’s life.

Imagine that.

Only seven out of every 10 babies were living to age four. The stress. The heartache. The tragedy. But it was observed that breast-fed infants had a much higher chance of survival and had lower incidences of diarrhea and other diseases than “bottle-fed” infants.

This marked a crucial discovery. The mortality rate was seven times higher among bottle-fed infants compared with breast-fed infants.

A major breakthrough for infant survival was the discovery of microorganisms and their importance to health, and the observation that non-digestible milk carbohydrates (later named human milk oligosaccharides) play an important role in the growth of these microorganisms.

"Chemists initially identified a large fraction of non-lactose carbohydrate, which they dubbed gynolactose, in the 1930s. Its role remained unknown, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was identified as the same entity as the bifidus factor. Chemical and biological breakthroughs subsequently revealed that there were in fact hundreds of these factors, of different lengths, which seemed to be there to feed the baby’s gut bacteria. This realization inspired the field, and research into the newly renamed human milk oligosaccharides took off."

Human Milk vs. Cow's Milk

Chemists found that the lactose in human and bovine milk was identical, except that human milk contained another type of carbohydrate.

In the early 1930s, researchers were able to characterize this unique carbohydrate fraction and named it “gynolactose”.

A few years later, Michel Polonowski and Jean Montreuil separated the first 2’- fucosyllactoses (2′-fucosyllactose and 3-fucosyllactose) from “gynolactose”.

This marked the discovery of the first individual HMO. In the following years, Montreuil's group in France and Kuhn's group in Germany discovered more than a dozen individual human milk oligosaccharides.

HMOs are made up of a combination of five simple sugar “building blocks”:

● Glucose (Glc)

● Galactose (Gal)

● N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc)

● Fucose (Fuc)

● Sialic acid (Sia)

New Uses for HMOs Emerge

With the vast amount of information emerging from studies, the importance of HMOs was hard to ignore. Just within the last five years, methods for utilizing HMOs began to surface, both as an ingredient in baby formula and as a supplement for adults.

Studies indicated that HMOs, 2’-FL and LNnT, were safe for healthy adults and could create stability within the gut microbiota. Today, the benefits to adults are equal to those for infants - aiding in the fight against irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, and the aging brain, according to data cited in a 2019 Bloomberg report. 


1. Montreuil, J. "The saga of human milk gynolactose." New Perspectives in Infant Nutrition, Sawaztki, G., Renner, B., Eds., Georg Thieme Verlag, Stuttgart (1993): 1-11.

2. Kunz, Clemens. "Historical aspects of human milk oligosaccharides." Advances in Nutrition 3.3 (2012): 430S-439S.

3. German, J. Bruce, et al. "Human milk oligosaccharides: evolution, structures and bioselectivity as substrates for intestinal bacteria." Personalized nutrition for the diverse needs of infants and children. Vol. 62. Karger Publishers, 2008. 205-222.

4. Bode, Lars. "Human milk oligosaccharides: every baby needs a sugar mama." Glycobiology 22.9 (2012): 1147-1162.

5. German, J. Bruce, et al. "Human milk oligosaccharides: evolution, structures and bioselectivity as substrates for intestinal bacteria." Personalized nutrition for the diverse needs of infants and children. Vol. 62. Karger Publishers, 2008. 205-222.

6. Moukarzel, Sara, and Lars Bode. "Human milk oligosaccharides and the preterm infant: a journey in sickness and in health." Clinics in Perinatology 44.1 (2017): 193-207.

7. Smilowitz, Jennifer T., et al. "Breast milk oligosaccharides: structure-function relationships in the neonate." Annual review of nutrition 34 (2014): 143-169.

8. Pediatr Gastroenterol Hepatol Nutr. 2019 Jul; 22(4): 330–340. Published online 2019 Jun 25. doi: 10.5223/pghn.2019.22.4.330

9. Lianghui Cheng, Renate Akkerman, Chunli Kong, Marthe T. C. Walvoort & Paul de Vos (2020) More than sugar in the milk: human milk oligosaccharides as essential bioactive molecules in breast milk and current insight in beneficial effects, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, DOI:

10. 1080/10408398.2020.1754756 10. Vandenplas, Y.; Berger, B.; Carnielli, V.P.; Ksiazyk, J.; Lagström, H.; Sanchez Luna, M.; Migacheva, N.; Mosselmans, J.-M.; Picaud, J.-C.; Possner, M.; Singhal, A.; Wabitsch, M. Human Milk Oligosaccharides: 2′-Fucosyllactose (2′-FL) and Lacto-N-Neotetraose (LNnT) in Infant Formula. Nutrients 2018, 10, 1161.

Next: How is HMO Made?

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