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For Primates in Captivity, a More Human Microbiome

DENVER/ Jan. 24 – Conservation populations of primates, important in species survival plans, have altered microbiomes that are more human-like and may impact their health, suggests a recently published study funded by Morris Animal Foundation.

"We've known for some time that captive primates have a less diverse set of microbes in their gut,” said Dr. Dan Knights, Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and the BioTechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota, one of the paper’s authors and co-collaborators. “We've also known that many primate species suffer from gastrointestinal issues in captivity.

“What is new here is that we find many different primates all losing their natural microbes in captivity and getting colonized by the same microbes that we humans have in our guts. In other words, their gut microbiomes are becoming 'humanized' in the zoo.”

The microbiome – colonies of various microbes that reside in the gut and elsewhere in and on the body – is an essential component of wellness for both animals and humans. The microbiome is a key player in digestion, inflammation, immunity, metabolism and other important biological processes. Researchers are discovering more every year about how an out-of-balance microbiome may contribute to, or in some cases cause, a variety of health problems, including weight gain, diabetes and cancer.

The primate study, undertaken by Dr. Jonathan Clayton, a Morris Animal Foundation Veterinary Student Scholar, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, looked at the changes that occur in the gut microbiome of primates in captivity.

Dr. Knights said the research team confirmed human-like gut microbiomes in 10 different primate species in four different zoos on three continents. The study may help animal care teams better understand and proactively address dietary factors that may impact the health of their primate populations. 

“We don't know conclusively why this is happening,” said Dr. Knights, “but the most likely culprit is loss of diverse plant fiber in their diet."

The University of Minnesota work is one of two new publications from Morris Animal Foundation Veterinary Student Scholars’ research projects that focus on the microbiome. The studies reflect a growing interest in how microscopic companions influence health and disease in both humans and animals, including wildlife species.

The second study, conducted by Dr. Vanessa Hale and colleagues at Purdue University, addressed issues of sample collection. Dr. Hale, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, looked at how environmental conditions affect sample quality in the field.

“Examining the gut microbiota present in stool samples provides a non-invasive way to learn about microbial profiles in elusive wildlife,” said Dr. Hale. “My PhD research focused on the health of wild and captive colobine monkeys, including gastrointestinal diseases. As part of this research, I needed to understand how field conditions (sunlight, insects, time from defecation) and preservation methods were affecting the fecal samples I was collecting from wild monkeys. These projects have gone on to inform the work of many other wildlife and field scientists who are pursuing microbiome studies.”

Understanding the role of the microbiome in health and disease is a major research focus in both human and veterinary medicine, including studies funded by Morris Animal Foundation. The Foundation also is committed to the training of promising young researchers such as Drs. Clayton and Hale.

About Morris Animal Foundation

Morris Animal Foundation is a global leader in funding scientific studies that advance the health of companion animals, horses and wildlife. Since its founding in 1948, the Foundation has invested over $103 million toward more than 2,500 studies that have led to significant breakthroughs in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases to benefit animals worldwide. Learn more at Morris Animal Foundation.

Publications cited:
Hale VL, Tan CL, Niu K, Yang Y, Cui D, Zhao H, Knights R, Amato KR. 2016. Effects of field conditions on fecal microbiota. J Microbiol Methods 130: 180-188.
Clayton JB, Vangay P, Huang H, Ward T, Hillmann BM, Al-Ghalith GA, Travis DA, Long HT, Tuan BV, Minh VV, Cabana F, Nadler T, Toddes B, Murphy T, Glander KE, Johnson TJ, Knights D. 2016. Captivity humanizes the primate microbiome. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 113: 10376-10381.