A PhD student at The University of Western Australia is travelling to Rwanda to research the gut health of chimpanzees. Natasha Coutts will examine how the bacteria in chimpanzee’s stomachs is affected by habitat destruction.
Microbiomes in the gut are essential to the digestive process and promote the production of vitamins K and B. Poor gut health has been proven to increase the risk of a number of diseases, including asthma, obesity and autism.
As the closest genetic relative to human beings, the chimpanzee’s gut system will provide a good basis for understanding our own gut. “Humans and chimpanzees are so closely related that it’s highly likely the results from this research will be applicable to questions surrounding the human gut microbiome as well,” Coutts explains. “Chimpanzees are a really good model to understand processes throughout evolutionary history that don’t necessarily fossilise.”
Ecological and behavioural data will be collected, compared and analysed over 18 months to understand the composition of the gut microbiome. “The gut microbiome is largely dictated by the diet and the social interactions of the host,” Coutts says. “Habitat fragmentation can therefore impact the quality of the diet and the way in which animals interact, particularly if they are animals that live in social groups.”
The connection between gut bacteria and habitat is fairly new territory, and Coutts hopes the research will also help the conservation of chimpanzees in Africa. “Given the positive relationship between gut microbial diversity and overall health, this research may provide further support for conservation strategies that aim to reduce fragmentation of chimpanzee habitats in an effort to maintain healthy and viable populations of this endangered, iconic primate,” she says.