Doctoral Dissertation Research: The influence of the social environment on the infant skin microbiome

Project: Research project

Project Details


Understanding the impact of human-environment interactions on early life development
is a key area of interest for biological anthropology. The microbiome—the microorganisms
(and their genes) that live in and on us—mediates many of these interactions, with effects on
human biology and health. For example, early life diet and contact with other people shapes the
infant microbiome, which directly impacts host physiology, including nutritional status and immune
system function. Despite these important connections, we have only a basic understanding
of how the microbiome is first established. Contact with mothers plays a role; however, unlike
other great apes, humans are cooperative breeders, and mothers rely on alloparents (additional
caregivers) for substantial infant care. As such, human infancy is highly social, and contact with
alloparents, including through behaviors like holding and carrying, likely provides additional
routes for alloparents to share skin microbes with infants. The proposed project takes a comparative
approach to investigate how allocare influences the infant skin microbiome, with a focus on
the factors that shape alloparent-infant social networks. Skin microbiome samples will be collected
from infants, mothers, and alloparents in two populations in Veracruz, Mexico that display
variation in patterns of allocare. Questionnaires will address allocare practices and additional exposures
likely to influence the infant skin microbiome. Results of 16S rRNA bacterial gene sequencing
will provide data on infant skin microbial community diversity and composition. Statistical
models and social network analysis will quantify infant social environments, identify potential
routes for microbial sharing, and test the effect of allocare on the infant skin microbiome
(while controlling for potential additional microbial exposures). This project offers a novel perspective
on the benefits of allocare to infants, and the results can help integrate the social environment
into future studies that connect early life microbial exposures to health outcomes.
Effective start/end date4/1/213/31/23


  • National Science Foundation (BCS-2041600)


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