In recent years, the study of microbiomes – the communities of microorganisms living in certain environments or in association with hosts – has boomed. It’s long been understood that microorganisms (especially bacteria) can play a big role in host health, but recent work has also shown that microbes can have a huge impact on many other important facets of a host’s life, from growth and development to behavior. Despite the importance of these microbiomes, the ecological and evolutionary processes that shape them are still not very well understood.
In a recent study, Ren et al. (2016) decided to use our favorite model system to better understand the relationship between host and microbiome. As a classic example of an adaptive radiation, Anolis lizards provide an opportunity to test both ecological and evolutionary factors that might be influencing their microbiomes. In this study, the authors asked whether the evolutionary and ecological diversification of a host lineage (anoles) has structured the biodiversity of the gut microbiome community.
The authors used several approaches to address this question. First, they sampled gut microbiomes (using fecal samples) from six Puerto Rican anole species representing three ecomorphs: two trunk-crown sister species (A. evermanii and A. stratulus), two grass-bush sister species (A. pulchellus and A. krugi), and two trunk-ground species (A. cristatellus and A. gundlachi). They predicted that microbiomes of species of the same ecomorph would be more similar to one another than to species of different ecomorphs, reflecting an influence of either ecological similarity or phylogenetic relatedness on gut microbiome composition. Second, they sampled invasive populations of two trunk-ground species in Florida (A. cristatellus and A. sagrei) in sympatry and in allopatry to explore a) whether species that are phylogenetically distinct but ecologically similar have similar gut microbiomes and b) whether gut microbiome is influenced by the local environment. Lastly, they documented individual variation in gut microbiome composition over time by recapturing and resampling marked individuals.
The most striking result of the study was the huge amount of variability in gut microbiome composition between individuals (Fig 2, Ren et al. 2016). For example, on average, any two gut microbiomes only shared 7% of their bacterial OTUs (“Operational Taxonomic Units,” you can think of them as bacterial species). Such high variability from one individual to another is notable, compared to studies of other organisms.
In their analysis of the Puerto Rican anoles, the researchers found that gut microbiomes were more similar between conspecifics than between individuals of different species, but only weakly so. Perhaps more surprisingly, there was no difference in gut microbiome composition based on ecomorph. The authors suggest that this lack of distinction between ecomorphs may stem from the fact that most anoles are dietary generalists; although different ecomorphs do partition habitats, they still overlap in the types of arthropods that they consume, which could impact their gut microbiomes. The authors find further support for this conclusion in their separate analysis of temporal variation in A. sagrei. The composition of an individual’s gut microbial community fluctuated greatly over time, suggesting that transient factors (such as variability in diet) have a significant impact on the gut microbiome.
Interestingly, the two invasive trunk-ground species in Florida showed a much stronger pattern: despite being of the same ecomorph, the gut microbiomes of the two species were significantly different from one another. The authors suggest that the strong signal in these not-so-closely-related invasive anoles along with the weak signal in the closely-related Puerto Rican anoles might indicate that Anolis evolution could have impacted the diversification of the gut microbiome over long evolutionary timescales, but the Puerto Rican radiation just is too young for such microbiome divergence to have occurred. But it’s also possible that the difference in the microbiomes of the two invasive anoles is just a holdover from the source environments (Puerto Rico and Cuba) that has been maintained in their invasive ranges. To throw another wrench into the works, the authors also found that allopatric populations of one of the invasive species (A. cristatellus) were different from one another, while those of the other invasive species (A. sagrei) were not.
So does host ecology impact gut microbiome? Does host phylogeny? Or host environment? Ren et al.’s study suggests possibly yes to all, but with limited (and somewhat conflicting) evidence, it’s hard to draw any certain conclusions. Perhaps more poop from more branches of the Anolis tree will hold the answers.
Find the full paper here:
Ren, T. et al., 2016. Does adaptive radiation of a host lineage promote ecological diversity of its bacterial communities? A test using gut microbiota of Anolis lizards. Molecular Ecology.