What gorilla poop tells us about evolution and human health


Share post:

A study of the microbiomes of wild gorillas and chimpanzees offers insights into the evolution of the human microbiome and might even have implications for human health. The research project was led by scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.

What gorilla poop tells us about evolution and human health
Credit: Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

The researchers used genetic sequencing to analyze fecal samples collected by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) from wild African great apes living the Sangha region of the Republic of Congo over the course of three years. Their goal was to understand the mix of gut microbes living in gorillas and chimpanzees and compare them to those already documented in other non-human primates and human populations. They found that gorilla and chimpanzee microbiomes fluctuate with seasonal rainfall patterns and diet, switching markedly during the summer dry period when succulent fruits abound in their environment and make up a larger proportion of their diet, as opposed to their usual, more fiber-rich diet of leaves and bark.

These seasonal shifts in the microbiomes of gorillas and chimpanzees are similar to seasonal microbiome changes observed in the human Hadza hunter-gatherers from Tanzania, who also rely heavily on the seasonal availability of foods in their environment. Seasonal shifts in the microbiomes of human industrialized cultures, such as the United States, are likely less prevalent owing to reduced reliance on seasonally available foods and globalization of the food supply, as evident in any grocery store.

“While our human genomes share a great deal of similarity with those of our closest living relatives, our second genome (the microbiome) has some important distinctions, including reduced diversity and the absence of bacteria and archaea that appear to be important for fiber fermentation,” says first author Allison L. Hicks, MS, a researcher at CII. “Understanding how these lost microbes influence health and disease will be an important area for future studies.”

“We observed dramatic changes in the gorilla and chimpanzee microbiomes depending on seasons and what they are eating,” says senior author Brent L. Williams, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at CII. “Bacteria that help gorillas break down fibrous plants are replaced once a year by another group of bacteria that feed on the mucous layer in their gut during the months they are eating fruits.

“The fact that our microbiomes are so different from our nearest living evolutionary relatives says something about how much we’ve changed our diets, consuming more protein and animal fat at the expense of fiber,” says Williams. “Many humans may be living in a constant state of fiber deficiency. Such a state may be promoting the growth of bacteria that degrade our protective mucous layer, which may have implications for intestinal inflammation, even colon cancer.”

All great apes are endangered or critically endangered. Down to fewer than 500,000, their numbers have been reduced through deforestation-which destroys their habitat-and through hunting, including for meat. Even infectious disease is a major factor-as many as one-quarter of the world’s gorilla population has died because of Ebola.

“We are losing biodiversity on a global scale,” cautions co-author Sarah Olson, PhD, associate director of wildlife health at WCS. “In fact, our own human microbiome is not immune to this phenomenon. There is an ever growing need for conservation efforts to preserve environments that are vital to the health of animal populations.”

“This study underscores the importance of a One Health framework in focusing not only on diseases but also on understanding more about normal physiology,” said co-author W. Ian Lipkin, MD, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of CII. “It also provides evidence to support the adage that you are what you eat.”

Source: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health [May 03, 3018]


  1. This is a very interesting study, e.g. on the importance of fibers in our diet, but the human diet (genus Homo) probably evolved differently from the more frugi- & herbivorous diets of the African apes & australopithecines: most likely, early-Pleistocene "archaic" Homo dispersed intercontinentally along the African & southern Eurasian coasts (and later also followed the rivers inland, e.g. seasonally), feeding on waterside & shallow-aquatic foods, which helps explain the drastic brain enlargement in Homo ("seafood is brainfood") as well as the reduction in gut length, google e.g. "Coastal Dispersal of Pleistocene Homo 2018 Verhaegen".



Related articles

Jaws: How an African ray-finned fish is helping us to rethink the fundamentals of evolution

A family of fishes, called the cichlids, in Africa's Lake Malawi is helping researchers at the University of...

There are more mammal species than we thought

A recent study published in the Journal of Mammalogy, at Oxford University Press, highlights that over 1000 new...

Researchers unlock genomic secrets of organisms that thrive in extreme deep-sea

A study led by scientists at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) has decoded the genomes of the deep-sea...

Which animals will survive climate change?

Climate change is exacerbating problems like habitat loss and temperatures swings that have already pushed many animal species...

Origin of Life on Earth may have come from Space

Certain molecules do exist in two forms which are symmetrical mirror images of each other: they are known...

New way to look at dawn of life

One of the great mysteries of life is how it began. What physical process transformed a nonliving mix...

Biological scientists identify pathways that extend lifespan by 500 percent… in worms

Scientists at the MDI Biological Laboratory, in collaboration with scientists from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging...

More than sex: Researchers propose expanded evolutionary concept

New work from the Kiel Evolution Center suggests that somatic gene variations play a larger role in evolutionary...