skip to main content

Title: Venomous Snakes Reveal Ecological and Phylogenetic Factors Influencing Variation in Gut and Oral Microbiomes
The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) of vertebrates contains a series of organs beginning with the mouth and ending with the anus or cloacal opening. Each organ represents a unique environment for resident microorganisms. Due to their simple digestive anatomy, snakes are good models for studying microbiome variation along the GIT. Cloacal sampling captures the majority of the microbial diversity found in the GIT of snakes—yet little is known about the oral microbiota of snakes. Most research on the snake mouth and gut microbiota are limited to studies of a single species or captive-bred individuals. It therefore remains unclear how a host’s life history, diet, or evolutionary history correlate with differences in the microbial composition within the mouths and guts of wild snakes. We sampled the mouth and gut microbial communities from three species of Asian venomous snakes and utilized 16S rRNA microbial inventories to test if host phylogenetic and ecological differences correlate with distinct microbial compositions within the two body sites. These species occupy three disparate habitat types: marine, semi-arboreal, and arboreal, our results suggest that the diversity of snake mouth and gut microbial communities correlate with differences in both host ecology and phylogeny.
; ;
Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Frontiers in Microbiology
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Background Insects are the most diverse group of animals which have established intricate evolutionary interactions with bacteria. However, the importance of these interactions is still poorly understood. Few studies have focused on a closely related group of insect species, to test the similarities and differences between their microbiota. Heliconius butterflies are a charismatic recent insect radiation that evolved the unique ability to use pollen as a protein source, which affected life history traits and resulted in an elevated speciation rates. We hypothesize that different Heliconius butterflies sharing a similar trophic pollen niche, harbor a similar gut flora within species, population and sexes. Methods To test our hypothesis, we characterized the microbiota of 38 adult male and female butterflies representing six species of Heliconius butterflies and 2 populations of the same species. We sequenced the V4 region of the 16S rRNA gene with the Roche 454 system and analyzed the data with standard tools for microbiome analysis. Results Overall, we found a low microbial diversity with only 10 OTUs dominating across all individuals, mostly Proteobacteria and Firmicutes, which accounted for  99.5% of the bacterial reads. When rare reads were considered, we identified a total of 406 OTUs across our samples. Wemore »identified reads within Phyla Chlamydiae , found in 5 butterflies of four species. Interestingly, only three OTUs were shared among all 38 individuals ( Bacillus, Enterococcus and Enterobacteriaceae ). Altogether, the high individual variation overshadowed species and sex differences. Thus, bacterial communities were not structured randomly with 13% of beta-diversity explained by species, and 40 rare OTUs being significantly different across species. Finally, 13 OTUs, including the intercellular symbiont Spiroplasma, varied significantly in relative abundance between males and females. Discussion The Heliconius microbial communities in these 38 individuals show a low diversity with few differences in the rare microbes between females, males, species or populations. Indeed, Heliconius butterflies, similarly to other insects, are dominated by few OTUs, mainly from Proteobacteria and Firmicutes. The overall low microbial diversity observed contrasts with the high intra-species variation in microbiome composition. This could indicate that much of the microbiome maybe acquired from their surroundings. The significant differences between species and sexes were restricted to rare taxa, which could be important for microbial community stability under changing conditions as seen in other host-microbiome systems. The presence of symbionts like Spiroplasma or Chlamydiae , identified in this study for the first time in Heliconius , could play a vital role in their behavior and evolution by vertical transmission. Altogether, our study represents a step forward into the description of the microbial diversity in a charismatic group of closely related butterflies.« less
  2. Abstract Background

    Inter-population variation in host-associated microbiota reflects differences in the hosts’ environments, but this characterization is typically based on studies comparing few populations. The diversity of natural habitats and captivity conditions occupied by any given host species has not been captured in these comparisons. Moreover, intraspecific variation in gut microbiota, generally attributed to diet, may also stem from differential acquisition of environmental microbes—an understudied mechanism by which host microbiomes are directly shaped by environmental microbes. To more comprehensively characterize gut microbiota in an ecologically flexible host, the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta; n = 209), while also investigating the role of environmental acquisition, we used 16S rRNA sequencing of lemur gut and soil microbiota sampled from up to 13 settings, eight in the wilderness of Madagascar and five in captivity in Madagascar or the U.S. Based on matched fecal and soil samples, we used microbial source tracking to examine covariation between the two types of consortia.


    The diversity of lemur gut microbes varied markedly within and between settings. Microbial diversity was not consistently greater in wild than in captive lemurs, indicating that this metric is not necessarily an indicator of host habitat or environmental condition. Variation in microbial composition was inconsistent both withmore »a single, representative gut community for wild conspecifics and with a universal ‘signal of captivity’ that homogenizes the gut consortia of captive animals. Despite the similar, commercial diets of captive lemurs on both continents, lemur gut microbiomes within Madagascar were compositionally most similar, suggesting that non-dietary factors govern some of the variability. In particular, soil microbial communities varied across geographic locations, with the few samples from different continents being the most distinct, and there was significant and context-specific covariation between gut and soil microbiota.


    As one of the broadest, single-species investigations of primate microbiota, our study highlights that gut consortia are sensitive to multiple scales of environmental differences. This finding begs a reevaluation of the simple ‘captive vs. wild’ dichotomy. Beyond the important implications for animal care, health, and conservation, our finding that environmental acquisition may mediate aspects of host-associated consortia further expands the framework for how host-associated and environmental microbes interact across different microbial landscapes.

    « less
  3. Rawls, John F. ; McFall-Ngai, Margaret J. (Ed.)
    ABSTRACT Commensal microbial communities have immense effects on their vertebrate hosts, contributing to a number of physiological functions, as well as host fitness. In particular, host immunity is strongly linked to microbiota composition through poorly understood bi-directional links. Gene expression may be a potential mediator of these links between microbial communities and host function. However, few studies have investigated connections between microbiota composition and expression of host immune genes in complex systems. Here, we leverage a large study of laboratory-raised fish from the species Gasterosteus aculeatus (three-spined stickleback) to document correlations between gene expression and microbiome composition. First, we examined correlations between microbiome alpha diversity and gene expression. Our results demonstrate robust positive associations between microbial alpha diversity and expression of host immune genes. Next, we examined correlations between host gene expression and abundance of microbial taxa. We identified 15 microbial families that were highly correlated with host gene expression. These families were all tightly correlated with host expression of immune genes and processes, falling into one of three categories—those positively correlated, negatively correlated, and neutrally related to immune processes. Furthermore, we highlight several important immune processes that are commonly associated with the abundance of these taxa, including both macrophagemore »and B cell functions. Further functional characterization of microbial taxa will help disentangle the mechanisms of the correlations described here. In sum, our study supports prevailing hypotheses of intimate links between host immunity and gut microbiome composition. IMPORTANCE Here, we document associations between host gene expression and gut microbiome composition in a nonmammalian vertebrate species. We highlight associations between expression of immune genes and both microbiome diversity and abundance of specific microbial taxa. These findings support other findings from model systems which have suggested that gut microbiome composition and host immunity are intimately linked. Furthermore, we demonstrate that these correlations are truly systemic; the gene expression detailed here was collected from an important fish immune organ (the head kidney) that is anatomically distant from the gut. This emphasizes the systemic impact of connections between gut microbiota and host immune function. Our work is a significant advancement in the understanding of immune-microbiome links in nonmodel, natural systems.« less
  4. ABSTRACT Microbial communities are shaped by interactions among their constituent members. Some Gram-negative bacteria employ type VI secretion systems (T6SSs) to inject protein toxins into neighboring cells. These interactions have been theorized to affect the composition of host-associated microbiomes, but the role of T6SSs in the evolution of gut communities is not well understood. We report the discovery of two T6SSs and numerous T6SS-associated Rhs toxins within the gut bacteria of honey bees and bumble bees. We sequenced the genomes of 28 strains of Snodgrassella alvi , a characteristic bee gut microbe, and found tremendous variability in their Rhs toxin complements: altogether, these strains appear to encode hundreds of unique toxins. Some toxins are shared with Gilliamella apicola , a coresident gut symbiont, implicating horizontal gene transfer as a source of toxin diversity in the bee gut. We use data from a transposon mutagenesis screen to identify toxins with antibacterial function in the bee gut and validate the function and specificity of a subset of these toxin and immunity genes in Escherichia coli . Using transcriptome sequencing, we demonstrate that S. alvi T6SSs and associated toxins are upregulated in the gut environment. We find that S. alvi Rhs loci have a conservedmore »architecture, consistent with the C-terminal displacement model of toxin diversification, with Rhs toxins, toxin fragments, and cognate immunity genes that are expressed and confer strong fitness effects in vivo . Our findings of T6SS activity and Rhs toxin diversity suggest that T6SS-mediated competition may be an important driver of coevolution within the bee gut microbiota. IMPORTANCE The structure and composition of host-associated bacterial communities are of broad interest, because these communities affect host health. Bees have a simple, conserved gut microbiota, which provides an opportunity to explore interactions between species that have coevolved within their host over millions of years. This study examined the role of type VI secretion systems (T6SSs)—protein complexes used to deliver toxic proteins into bacterial competitors—within the bee gut microbiota. We identified two T6SSs and diverse T6SS-associated toxins in bacterial strains from bees. Expression of these genes is increased in bacteria in the bee gut, and toxin and immunity genes demonstrate antibacterial and protective functions, respectively, when expressed in Escherichia coli . Our results suggest that coevolution among bacterial species in the bee gut has favored toxin diversification and maintenance of T6SS machinery, and demonstrate the importance of antagonistic interactions within host-associated microbial communities.« less
  5. Abstract Background Antibiotics alter the diversity, structure, and dynamics of host-associated microbial consortia, including via development of antibiotic resistance; however, patterns of recovery from microbial imbalances and methods to mitigate associated negative effects remain poorly understood, particularly outside of human-clinical and model-rodent studies that focus on outcome over process. To improve conceptual understanding of host-microbe symbiosis in more naturalistic contexts, we applied an ecological framework to a non-traditional, strepsirrhine primate model via long-term, multi-faceted study of microbial community structure before, during, and following two experimental manipulations. Specifically, we administered a broad-spectrum antibiotic, either alone or with subsequent fecal transfaunation, to healthy, male ring-tailed lemurs ( Lemur catta ), then used 16S rRNA and shotgun metagenomic sequencing to longitudinally track the diversity, composition, associations, and resistomes of their gut microbiota both within and across baseline, treatment, and recovery phases. Results Antibiotic treatment resulted in a drastic decline in microbial diversity and a dramatic alteration in community composition. Whereas microbial diversity recovered rapidly regardless of experimental group, patterns of microbial community composition reflected long-term instability following treatment with antibiotics alone, a pattern that was attenuated by fecal transfaunation. Covariation analysis revealed that certain taxa dominated bacterial associations, representing potential keystone species inmore »lemur gut microbiota. Antibiotic resistance genes, which were universally present, including in lemurs that had never been administered antibiotics, varied across individuals and treatment groups. Conclusions Long-term, integrated study post antibiotic-induced microbial imbalance revealed differential, metric-dependent evidence of recovery, with beneficial effects of fecal transfaunation on recovering community composition, and potentially negative consequences to lemur resistomes. Beyond providing new perspectives on the dynamics that govern host-associated communities, particularly in the Anthropocene era, our holistic study in an endangered species is a first step in addressing the recent, interdisciplinary calls for greater integration of microbiome science into animal care and conservation.« less