The Unique Seed Protein Composition of Quality Protein Popcorn Promotes Growth of Beneficial Bacteria From the Human Gut Microbiome

Nate Korth, Leandra Parsons, Mallory J. Van Haute, Qinnan Yang, Preston Hurst, James C. Schnable, David R. Holding, Andrew K. Benson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The effects of fiber, complex carbohydrates, lipids, and small molecules from food matrices on the human gut microbiome have been increasingly studied. Much less is known about how dietary protein can influence the composition and function of the gut microbial community. Here, we used near-isogenic maize lines of conventional popcorn and quality-protein popcorn (QPP) to study the effects of the opaque-2 mutation and associated quality-protein modifiers on the human gut microbiome. Opaque-2 blocks the synthesis of major maize seed proteins (α-zeins), resulting in a compensatory synthesis of new seed proteins that are nutritionally beneficial with substantially higher levels of the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan. We show that QPP lines stimulate greater amounts of butyrate production by human gut microbiomes in in vitro fermentation of popped and digested corn from parental and QPP hybrids. In human gut microbiomes derived from diverse individuals, bacterial taxa belonging to the butyrate-producing family Lachnospiraceae, including the genera Coprococcus and Roseburia were consistently increased when fermenting QPP vs. parental popcorn lines. We conducted molecular complementation to further demonstrate that lysine-enriched seed protein can stimulate growth and butyrate production by microbes through distinct pathways. Our data show that organisms such as Coprococcus can utilize lysine and that other gut microbes, such as Roseburia spp., instead, utilize fructoselysine produced during thermal processing (popping) of popcorn. Thus, the combination of seed composition in QPP and interaction of protein adducts with carbohydrates during thermal processing can stimulate the growth of health-promoting, butyrate-producing organisms in the human gut microbiome through multiple pathways.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number921456
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
StatePublished - Jul 14 2022


  • butyrate
  • fermentation
  • fructoselysine
  • gut microbiome
  • lysine
  • quality-protein popcorn

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)


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