BACKGROUND: Probiotic bifidobacteria in combination with prebiotic carbohydrates have documented positive effects on human health regarding gastrointestinal disorders and improved immunity, however the selective routes of uptake remain unknown for most candidate prebiotics. The differential transcriptomes of Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis Bl-04, induced by 11 potential prebiotic oligosaccharides were analyzed to identify the genetic loci involved in the uptake and catabolism of α- and β-linked hexoses, and β-xylosides. RESULTS: The overall transcriptome was modulated dependent on the type of glycoside (galactosides, glucosides or xylosides) utilized. Carbohydrate transporters of the major facilitator superfamily (induced by gentiobiose and β-galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS)) and ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters (upregulated by cellobiose, GOS, isomaltose, maltotriose, melibiose, panose, raffinose, stachyose, xylobiose and β-xylo-oligosaccharides) were differentially upregulated, together with glycoside hydrolases from families 1, 2, 13, 36, 42, 43 and 77. Sequence analysis of the identified solute-binding proteins that determine the specificity of ABC transporters revealed similarities in the breadth and selectivity of prebiotic utilization by bifidobacteria. CONCLUSION: This study identified the differential gene expression for utilization of potential prebiotics highlighting the extensive capabilities of Bifidobacterium lactis Bl-04 to utilize oligosaccharides. Results provide insights into the ability of this probiotic microbe to utilize indigestible carbohydrates in the human gastrointestinal tract.