Could eating moss be good for gut health?

An international team of scientists including the University of Adelaide have discovered a new complex carbohydrate in moss that could possibly be exploited for health or other uses.

The scientists, from Australia's ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls, and the U.S.’s University of Rhode Island say the polysaccharide looks a bit like the gut-friendly, health-promoting beta glucan found in oats and other cereals. A polysaccharide is a complex carbohydrate made up of sugar molecules.

Led by Rachel Burton, PhD, a professor in the University of Adelaide's School of Agriculture, Food, and Wine, and Alison Roberts, PhD, professor at the University of Rhode Island, the research team looked into the evolutionary history of the beta glucan when they made this discovery. The research was published April 17 in The Plant Cell, the journal by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).

Beta glucan, another polysaccharide, is a dietary fiber that is known to have many health benefits. It is abundant in cereals, such as oats and barley, but has not been found in moss despite the plants having similar relevant genes.

The researchers took one of these similar genes from moss to see if it would lead to the production of beta glucan. What researchers found was a new polysaccharide made up of the sugars glucose and arabinose, not just glucose as in beta glucan, according to Burton.

"We have called it arabinoglucan and believe the way the two different sugars link together will make it structurally similar to beta glucan,” she says. “We are not advocating eating moss, we are simply saying that there is great potential for this new polysaccharide as we've seen with others."

Burton says that while the function of the arabinoglucan is not yet known, it may have properties that can be exploited for health, industrial, and medical fields, like well-known polysaccharides, such as xylans that can be used for as dietary supplements or drug delivery.

This discovery leads to the question, Burton says—how many other polysaccharides do plants contain that we don't yet know about?

"We don't know what's there because we can't always see it,” she says. “Scientists will need new tools to be able to find them, which might include new antibodies and microscopy techniques."