Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Research Article

Metabolic cross talk between the colon and the periphery: implications for insulin sensitivity

Sir David Cuthbertson Medal Lecture

on 1 – 2 November 2006, The Annual Meeting of the Nutrition Society, was held at the Hilton Brighton Metropole, Brighton, and the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition.

M. Denise Robertsona1 c1

a1 School of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, UK


Until recently, a glance at a standard undergraduate textbook would have given the impression that the colon was merely a storage organ for faeces and maybe something about the absorption of electrolytes and water. In reality, the colon is a highly-metabolically-active organ, the function of which has implications not only for the remainder of the digestive tract, but also for peripheral organs such as adipose tissue (AT), liver and skeletal muscle. The present review focuses on two distinct but complementary areas: (1) the metabolic adaptation that occurs following surgical removal of colonic tissue; (2) the effect of modulating the colon in situ in terms of postprandial metabolism, insulin sensitivity and disease risk. Work in these two areas points to the colon being important in modulating normal tissue insulin sensitivity. The role of fatty acids is central to the insulin sensitivity hypothesis. AT acts as a daily ‘buffer’ for fatty acids. However, following colonic resection there is an apparent change in AT function. There is an increase in the AT lipolysis rate, resulting in the release of excess fatty acids into the circulation and consequently the take up of excess fatty acids into skeletal muscle. This resultant increase in either storage of lipid or its oxidation would result in a reduction in insulin sensitivity. The insulin-sensitising effects of high-fibre diets are also related to changes in AT function and fatty acid metabolism, but manipulating colonic tissue in situ allows the mechanisms to be elucidated. This research area is an exciting one, involving the potential role of SCFA (the absorbed by-products of colonic bacterial fermentation) acting directly on peripheral tissues, following the recent identification of G-protein-coupled receptors specific for these ligands.


c1 Corresponding author: Dr Denise Robertson, fax +44 14863 686401, email