Microbial biogeography of the wombat gastrointestinal tract
Eisenhofer, R and D'Agnese, E and Taggart, D and Carver, S and Penrose, B, Microbial biogeography of the wombat gastrointestinal tract, PeerJ, 10 Article 12982. ISSN 2167-8359 (2022) [Refereed Article]
Most herbivorous mammals have symbiotic microbes living in their gastrointestinal tracts that help with harvesting energy from recalcitrant plant fibre. The bulk of research into these microorganisms has focused on samples collected from faeces, representing the distal region of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. However, the GI tract in herbivorous mammals is typically long and complex, containing different regions with distinct physico-chemical properties that can structure resident microbial communities. Little work has been done to document GI microbial communities of herbivorous animals at these sites. In this study, we use 16S rRNA gene sequencing to characterize the microbial biogeography along the GI tract in two species of wombats. Specifically, we survey the microbes along four major gut regions (stomach, small intestine, proximal colon, distal colon) in a single bare-nosed wombat (Vombatus ursinus) and a single southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons). Our preliminary results show that GI microbial communities of wombats are structured by GI region. For both wombat individuals, we observed a trend of increasing microbial diversity from stomach to distal colon. The microbial composition in the first proximal colon region was more similar between wombat species than the corresponding distal colon region in the same species. We found several microbial genera that were differentially abundant between the first proximal colon (putative site for primary plant fermentation) and distal colon regions (which resemble faecal samples). Surprisingly, only 10.6% (98) and 18.8% (206) of amplicon sequence variants (ASVs) were shared between the first proximal colon region and the distal colon region for the bare-nosed and southern hairy-nosed wombat, respectively. These results suggest that microbial communities in the first proximal colon region—the putative site of primary plant fermentation in wombats—are distinct from the distal colon, and that faecal samples may have limitations in capturing the diversity of these communities. While faeces are still a valuable and effective means of characterising the distal colon microbiota, future work seeking to better understand how GI microbiota impact the energy economy of wombats (and potentially other hindgut-fermenting mammals) may need to take gut biogeography into account.