Digestive System > Liver

Bile and Intestinal Bacteria

The physiologic utility of bile in the digestive process is to solubilize lipids in the small intestine, facilitating their ultimate absorption across the epithelium. This detergent-like activity of bile, or more accurately, bile salts, is intrinsically damaging to many bacteria. As you might expect then, bacteria that live and proliferate within the intestine have evolved defense mechanisms to avoid the potentially lethal activity of bile. Moreover, a number of pathogenic enteric bacteria also respond to bile by increasing expression of factors that enhance their disease-producing abilities.

The interactions of bile salts and bacteria have been best studied in a number of Gram-negative bacteria, some of which are commensal and others well known to induce intestinal disease. These include Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhi and enterica, and Vibrio cholerae. Resistance of these bacteria to bile is actually exploited for laboratory diagnosis in that they can be isolated away from other bacteria by growth on medium containing bile salts (e.g MacConkey's agar).

At least three mechanisms have been shown to impart resistance of bacteria to the deliterious effects of bile salts:

Another property of many enteric bacteria is the ability to form biofilms in which groups of bacteria secrete and become encased in an exopolysaccharide that decreases access to bile salts.

In addition to resisting the toxic effects of bile, there are numerous indications that bile salts actually stimulate expression of virulence factors in some pathogenic enteric bacteria. For example, enteropathogenic E. coli respond to bile salts with an increased ability to adhere to cells.

References and Reviews

Liver: Introduction and Index

Updated January, 2019. Send comments to Richard.Bowen@colostate.edu