REGULAR interactions and physical touching can synchronise the gut microbiome in social groups, leading to a stronger immune defence. These are the findings of research conducted between different institutions, including the University of Oxford, that analysed the community of bacteria in the intestine of red-bellied lemurs.
These animals live in close social groups with frequent physical contact with one another, spreading both good and bad microbiomes, whilst rarely interacting with other social groups. As gut microbes contribute to immune defence, the researchers wanted to see how synchronised these bacteria were in groups of red-bellied lemurs.
Synchronised Gut Microbiome
The team found that the gut microbiome was very similar within close social groups; additionally, individual lemurs had more similar gut community with their closest friends. The authors argued that this sharing of gut bacteria may help prevent group members from developing dangerous infections by harmonising the immune defence system.
“In close social groups like red-bellied lemurs, social environment is key to immunity. Animals that touch each other tend to spread microbes, both good and bad, but eventually frequent social contact leads to a synchronised microbiome,” explained lead author Ms Aura Raulo, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford. “Because microbes tune immune defence, this can be seen as a form of co-operative immunity: sharing microbial allies and enemies makes infections by opportunist pathogens less likely.”
The researchers stress that more work is required to distinguish pathogenic microbes from beneficial ones in order to connect the findings with immunity. There were also preliminary data in the study about the link between social environment, social contact, bacterial transmission, and hormonal changes, such as stress.
Preventing the Spread of Autoimmune Diseases
It is hoped that the research could potentially help prevent the spread of autoimmune diseases in humans by increasing the knowledge of what builds a healthy gut microbiome. The authors believe that to properly understand and tackle the epidemics of autoimmune disease in humans, social and environmental problems should not be ignored.
“Understanding that social environment and stress are directly linked to gut microbiome could go some way to explaining why the western world experiences so many epidemics of autoimmune diseases, and help us to better treat people with them,” added Ms Raulo.
James Coker, Senior Editorial Assistant
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