The role of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the control of colonic motility is controversial. Germ-free (GF) mice are unable to produce these metabolites and serve as a model to study how their absence affects colonic motility. GF transit is slower than controls, and colonization of these mice improves transit and serotonin [5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)] levels. Our aim was to determine the role SCFAs play in improving transit and whether this is dependent on mucosal 5-HT signaling. Motility was assessed in GF mice via spatiotemporal mapping. First, motor patterns in the whole colon were measured ex vivo with or without luminal SCFA, and outflow from the colon was recorded to quantify outflow caused by individual propulsive contractions. Second, artificial fecal pellet propulsion was measured. Motility was then assessed in tryptophan hydroxylase-1 (TPH1) knockout (KO) mice, devoid of mucosal 5-HT, with phosphate buffer, butyrate, or propionate intraluminal perfusion. GF mice exhibited a lower proportion of propulsive contractions, lower volume of outflow/contraction, slower velocity of contractions, and slower propulsion of fecal pellets compared with controls. SCFAs changed motility patterns to that of controls in all parameters. Butyrate administration increased the proportion of propulsive contractions in controls yet failed to in TPH1 KO mice. Propionate inhibited propulsive contractions in all mice. Our results reveal significant abnormalities in the propulsive nature of colonic motor patterns in GF mice, explaining the decreased transit time in in vivo studies. We show that butyrate but not propionate activates propulsive motility and that this may require mucosal 5-HT.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY Understanding the role that the microbiota play in governing the physiology of colonic motility is lacking. Here, we offer for the first time, to our knowledge, a detailed analysis of colonic motor patterns and pellet propulsion using spatiotemporal mapping in the absence of microbiota. We show a striking difference in germ-free and control phenotypes and attribute this to a lack of fermentation-produced short-chain fatty acid. We then show that butyrate but not propionate can restore motility and that the butyrate effect likely requires mucosal 5-hydroxytryptamine.