Like humans, animals are hosts to vast microbial communities. Describing animal-associated microbiota allows us to detect similarities and differences to the human-associated microbiota which facilitates a better understanding of human physiology and health. We have already observed that dietary changes exert similar influences on gut microbiota in mammals from baboons to echidnas as they do in humans (Muegge et al., 2011). Additionally, improved knowledge of how animal-associated microbiota benefit their hosts can inform studies of host ecology, evolution, and conservation.
The Templeton Project (contact: Se Jin Song) seeks to determine whether convergent evolution of major phenotypic features in animals results in convergence of their microbiomes,building on our previous work which demonstrated this convergence in myrmecophagus mammals (Delsuc et al., 2013). We are working in collaboration with researchers and zoos to elucidate the evolutionary processes that govern assembly of the vertebrate microbiome, and, in turn, the influence of the microbiome on the capacity to evolve new traits by testing whether microbial changes precede or follow functional changes. For example, we are exploring the influence of dietary specializations on the gut microbiome by comparing microbiota in fecal samples from sanguivorous and myrmecophagous species to those in closely-related species with unspecialized diets.
The Primate Diet project (contact: Katie Amato), conducted in collaboration with a team from the University of Illinois, explores the effects of diet specialization on the non-human primate gut microbial community. The ability to consume large proportions of leaves has evolved independently multiple times in non-human primates and is associated with distinct behavioral and physiological adaptations. We are interested in knowing whether there is convergence in the composition and/or function of the gut microbiome across all leaf-eating primates or whether host phylogeny and physiology are more significant determinants of the microbiota. This knowledge has important implications for our understanding of the role of the gut microbiome in human evolution as diet and physiology shifted.