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Mandrills and microbes II: the gut microbiome

   Department of Anthropology

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  Dr J Setchell, Dr L Kerr, Dr S Kessler  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The primate gastro-intestinal tract is home to trillions of micro-organisms, which provide their host with essential benefits. In addition to aiding digestion and producing vitamins, gut micro-organisms play a crucial role in the host immune response, protecting the host from infection. Understanding the host-microbe relationship in primates thus has important implications for our understanding of primate health, behaviour, and evolution. With almost 60% of primates threatened with extinction, improving our understanding of their microbiome also has important implications for primate conservation, due to its importance in the diet and immune system. Moreover, because we are primates, understanding the primate microbiome has implications for our understanding of human evolution.

The project forms part of a long-term study of the behaviour, health, and physiology of a semi-free ranging colony of mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx, a large species of African primate) under naturalistic conditions. It combines microbiology and bioinformatics with the study of life history, behaviour, and immune responses to examine the host-microbe relationship in a social primate.

Mandrills are a particularly intriguing species for this study because of their complex sociality, and reliance on multimodal signalling. They live in unusually large groups, facilitating social transmission of microbiota. These groups are made up of females living in matrilines and males that can be full members of the group, peripheral or solitary. These sex differences in the strength and patterns of social bonds suggest that the factors influencing the composition of the gut microbiome may also differ between the sexes, and between individuals. Mandrills’ brightly coloured facial skin signals dominance in males, and age and fertility in females. Their odour encodes information on sex, rank, relatedness, major histocompatibility genotype, and individual identity. How these signals relate to the bacterial communities in the gut is not yet known.

Please see https://iapetus2.ac.uk/studentships/mandrills-and-microbes-ii-the-gut-microbiome/ for full details

The project benefits from existing samples and datasets, with which the PhD student can develop and refine their methods and test hypotheses. They will first extract DNA from existing faecal samples and use high-throughput sequencing and bioinformatics to characterise the faecal microbiome of mandrills living under naturalistic conditions. They will use these data and our existing datasets to investigate the following hypotheses:

  1. The composition of the faecal microbiome differs predictably with host-specific characteristics (age and maturational stage, sex, dominance rank, reproductive status)
  2. The composition of the faecal microbiome is transmitted vertically from mother to offspring.
  3. A shared environment facilitates the transmission of microbes. Thus, in social animals, group membership shapes the faecal microbiome.
  4. Administration of an anti-parasite treatment affects the composition of the faecal microbiome. Such treatments have a strong influence on the faecal microbiome in humans and laboratory animals and can increase susceptibility to disease.
  5. The composition of the faecal microbiome is related to the host’s immunological profile and phenotype.

Funding Notes

This studentship is in competition with other projects in the Iapetus DTP.
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