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γ-Butyrobetaine is a proatherogenic intermediate in gut microbial metabolism of L-carnitine to TMAO.


L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, was recently reported to accelerate atherosclerosis via a metaorganismal pathway involving gut microbial trimethylamine (TMA) formation and host hepatic conversion into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). Herein, we show that following L-carnitine ingestion, γ-butyrobetaine (γBB) is produced as an intermediary metabolite by gut microbes at a site anatomically proximal to and at a rate ∼1,000-fold higher than the formation of TMA. Moreover, we show that γBB is the major gut microbial metabolite formed from dietary L-carnitine in mice, is converted into TMA and TMAO in a gut microbiota-dependent manner (like dietary L-carnitine), and accelerates atherosclerosis. Gut microbial composition and functional metabolic studies reveal that distinct taxa are associated with the production of γBB or TMA/TMAO from dietary L-carnitine. Moreover, despite their close structural similarity, chronic dietary exposure to L-carnitine or γBB promotes development of functionally distinct microbial communities optimized for the metabolism of L-carnitine or γBB, respectively.