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Centre de recherche
Tuesday, March 31 2015
Press release

What can gut bacteria tell us about friendship?

MONTRÉAL, March 31, 2015 – Birds of a feather flock together. But Baboons take it one step further: the bacteria in their gut - otherwise known as their biome - becomes similar over time. And researchers think a similar thing might be happening in humans. "Social relationships, especially social contacts, are probably also important in transmitting human gut microbes," said co-author Elizabeth Archie of the University of Notre Dame. "This means that the people you touch the most, significant others, children, friends, are sources of bacteria that could shape your microbiome and perhaps influence how it works."

In fact, researchers already knew that people who share homes have a similar biome, they're just not sure how the process works.

The study was conducted at the Amboseli Baboon Research Project (ABRP), a long-term study of wild baboons in Kenya. Since 1971, this project has followed the lives of hundreds of wild baboons, giving the researchers very detailed data on the animals' social relationships, diets, habitats, and genetic relationships. "To measure the microbiome, we collaborated with Ran Blekhman of the University of Minnesota and Luis Barreiro of the University of Montreal," Archie said. "Specifically, we collected fecal samples from known baboons. We then extracted DNA from these samples; 99 percent of the DNA in a fecal sample comes from bacteria. We then used new genomic tools to identify what bacterial species were found in each baboon." To measure the baboons' social relationships, the team watched them for a year, recording data any time two baboons groomed each other.

The results of the study raise the question: are socially transmitted microbes a good thing or a bad thing?

"We already know that social relationships are important in disease transmission," Archie said. "For instance, if you come down with the flu, you probably got it from a family member or co-worker. Our results suggest that good bacteria also travel along social networks. Hence, social relationships might grant individuals access to good microbes that could improve gut health and functioning. As a next step, we're trying to look at whether socially-transmitted microbes are largely good or bad for their hosts."

So how does it work?

"When baboons groom each other they're combing through each other's fur for parasites, dirt, dead skin. Sometimes they pull things off and put them in their mouths," Archie said. "Males and females also spend a lot of time grooming close to the genital area during estrous," added co-author Jenny Tung, of Duke University. Hugging and cuddling and other forms of physical contact could play a role in allowing people to swap gut germs, too, the researchers say, especially after touching surfaces such as bathroom sinks and toilet handles.


This article was prepared using material provided by Duke University and the University of Notre Dame.

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Université de Montréal
William Raillant-Clark
International Press Attaché
Tel. : 514 343-7593
Persons mentioned in the text
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Updated on 3/31/2015
Created on 3/31/2015
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