eLife digest | Social networks predict gut microbiome composition in wild baboons

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Social networks predict gut microbiome composition in wild baboons

eLife digest

Affiliation details

Duke University, United States; National Museums of Kenya, Kenya; University of Montreal, Canada; University of Minnesota, United States; University of Notre Dame, United States; Princeton University, United States

The digestive system is home to a complex community of microbes—known as the gut microbiome—that contributes to our health and wellbeing by digesting food, producing essential vitamins, and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. The recent development of rapid genome sequencing techniques has made it much easier to identify the species of microbes found in the gut microbiome, and how this microbiome's composition varies between individuals.

Studies in humans and other primates suggest that direct contact during social interactions may alter the composition of the gut microbiome in an individual. This could explain why there is a strong association between social interactions and health in humans and other social animals. However, similarities in the gut microbiomes of individuals within a social group could also be due to a shared diet or a common environment. The information collected during long-term studies of wild primates offers an opportunity to analyze and assess the influence of diet, environment and social interaction on the gut microbiome.

Here, Tung et al. studied the gut microbiomes of 48 wild baboons belonging to two different social groups in Amboseli, Kenya. Using a technique called shotgun metagenomic sequencing, they sequenced DNA extracted from samples of feces collected from individual baboons. The sequence data revealed that an individual's social group and social network can predict the species found in its gut microbiome. This remained the case even when other factors—such as diet, kinship, and shared environments—were taken into account.

Tung et al.'s findings suggest that direct physical contact during social interactions may be important in transmitting gut microbiomes between members of the same social group. However, scientists still don't know whether this exchange is good or bad for the health of the baboons. Future work will try to understand whether baboons benefit from acquiring gut microbes from their group members, and if the gut microbes of some social groups are better than others.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.05224.002