A comparative, evolutionary context for human-gut microbe interactions

Project: Research project

Project Details


A major question in biological anthropology is how humans were able to support the energetic costs associated with the evolution of our large brains. Recent research suggests that the human gut microbiota may be an important factor currently missing from this discussion. Gut microbes break down dietary starch and fiber to generate short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which can be absorbed by hosts and used as an energy source. This energy could have been critical in powering the human brain. Additionally, differences in dietary fiber intake lead to changes in the types and proportions of SCFAs produced. Specifically, a low-fiber diet leads to high ratios of acetate to butyrate. Unlike butyrate, acetate readily leaves the gut and is used to power other organs. It also promotes fat deposition. Among other factors, human brain expansion is believed to have depended upon a shift in energy allocation from the gut to the brain as well as increased fat stores as a buffer against food shortage. It is possible that gut microbial SCFA production patterns played a role in these physiological shifts, especially given that human evolution is characterized by a gradual reduction in fiber intake. Because it is virtually impossible to recover gut microbial data from our earliest human ancestors, a better understanding of these putative processes depends on comparisons of the human and non-human primate gut microbiota. Therefore, this project compares SCFA production potential in humans and non-human primates to determine if humans exhibit a unique relationship between diet, the gut microbiota, and physiology. These data represent a critical first step toward understanding the potential role of the gut microbiota in shaping human metabolic and physiological changes over evolution.
Effective start/end date5/1/1812/31/19


  • Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (transfer 5/31/18)


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