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J Clin Invest. 2019 Jan 2;129(1):373-387. doi: 10.1172/JCI94601. Epub 2018 Dec 10.

l-Carnitine in omnivorous diets induces an atherogenic gut microbial pathway in humans.

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Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Lerner Research Institute.
Center for Microbiome and Human Health, and.
Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
Life Sciences TPT and.
Global Biosciences, The Procter & Gamble Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.
Department of Mathematics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.



l-Carnitine, an abundant nutrient in red meat, accelerates atherosclerosis in mice via gut microbiota-dependent formation of trimethylamine (TMA) and trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) via a multistep pathway involving an atherogenic intermediate, γ-butyrobetaine (γBB). The contribution of γBB in gut microbiota-dependent l-carnitine metabolism in humans is unknown.


Omnivores and vegans/vegetarians ingested deuterium-labeled l-carnitine (d3-l-carnitine) or γBB (d9-γBB), and both plasma metabolites and fecal polymicrobial transformations were examined at baseline, following oral antibiotics, or following chronic (≥2 months) l-carnitine supplementation. Human fecal commensals capable of performing each step of the l-carnitine→γBB→TMA transformation were identified.


Studies with oral d3-l-carnitine or d9-γBB before versus after antibiotic exposure revealed gut microbiota contribution to the initial 2 steps in a metaorganismal l-carnitine→γBB→TMA→TMAO pathway in subjects. Moreover, a striking increase in d3-TMAO generation was observed in omnivores over vegans/vegetarians (>20-fold; P = 0.001) following oral d3-l-carnitine ingestion, whereas fasting endogenous plasma l-carnitine and γBB levels were similar in vegans/vegetarians (n = 32) versus omnivores (n = 40). Fecal metabolic transformation studies, and oral isotope tracer studies before versus after chronic l-carnitine supplementation, revealed that omnivores and vegans/vegetarians alike rapidly converted carnitine to γBB, whereas the second gut microbial transformation, γBB→TMA, was diet inducible (l-carnitine, omnivorous). Extensive anaerobic subculturing of human feces identified no single commensal capable of l-carnitine→TMA transformation, multiple community members that converted l-carnitine to γBB, and only 1 Clostridiales bacterium, Emergencia timonensis, that converted γBB to TMA. In coculture, E. timonensis promoted the complete l-carnitine→TMA transformation.


In humans, dietary l-carnitine is converted into the atherosclerosis- and thrombosis-promoting metabolite TMAO via 2 sequential gut microbiota-dependent transformations: (a) initial rapid generation of the atherogenic intermediate γBB, followed by (b) transformation into TMA via low-abundance microbiota in omnivores, and to a markedly lower extent, in vegans/vegetarians. Gut microbiota γBB→TMA/TMAO transformation is induced by omnivorous dietary patterns and chronic l-carnitine exposure.



NIH and Office of Dietary Supplements grants HL103866, HL126827, and DK106000, and the Leducq Foundation.


Atherosclerosis; Cardiology; Cardiovascular disease; Vascular Biology

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