Intriguing study links physical contact with gut health – you share a similar microbiome as those you normally interact with

According to a study by researchers from the University of Oxford, there is “a direct link between physical contact and gut bacteria” in red-bellied lemurs. The scientists believe that their findings can be used to further research on human health and that the phenomenon is probably made possible “through ‘huddling’ behavior and touch.”

Researchers from the University of Oxford collaborated with experts from various universities, such as the University of Arizona and Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY), for the study. The findings were published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

The gut microbiome refers to the community of different bacteria that live inside the intestines, and these bacteria are crucial for both animal and human health. Gut bacteria is necessary for proper digestion and individual immunity.

With the right mix of gut microbes, the human immune defense can fight pathogens and help the body identify “good” bacteria from the “bad.”

Aura Raulo, lead author and graduate student at Oxford’s Department of Zoology, explained that social environment among close social groups such as red-bellied lemurs is necessary for immunity. Animals that tend to touch each other more frequently have a higher chance of spreading both good and bad microbes.

Frequent social contact could eventually result in a synchronized microbiome. Since microbes balance immune defense, the sharing of good gut bacteria can be viewed as a kind of cooperative immunity. This means that because of the shared bacteria, infections by pathogens can somehow be prevented.

Lemurs and social groups

Red-bellied lemurs are a closely-knit and tactile species. They often live in small family groups of two to eight lemurs, and they spend a lot of time together. The primates are occasionally nocturnal. Only the male lemurs are reddish-brown all over, while the females have white bellies.

Based on the study findings, social groups of lemurs often had very similar gut microbiomes. In fact, in some groups, individuals had a “more similar gut community with their closest friends.”

The researchers posit that having a similar microbiome within a social group can positively affect health. Additionally, this can help harmonize immune defense and prevent members from getting fatal infections. Because social bonds were linked to gut microbiota, information about gut bacteria could be used to replicate the social network of their hosts and determine which members interacted with each other.

Andrea Baden, assistant professor of Anthropology at Hunter and co-senior author of the research, noted that lemurs seldom interact with other groups and that this could be the reason for the individual variation. However, genetic kinship could also be a factor, such as when infants inherit a suite of microbes from their mother during birth.

But while the initial findings have identified several emerging patterns, the researchers still have their work cut out for them.

Stacey Tecot, co-author and Associate Professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, shared that the study findings haven’t identified if the bacteria are good or bad yet. The bacteria mostly remain unknown and to link these results to immunity, Tecot noted that further research must be done to determine the presence of pathogenic (or potentially pathogenic) microbes.

According to Raulo, “[social contact], stress physiology and gut microbiome” are closely connected. An individual’s social contact can tell how much stress you interact with, and both can determine the microbes that can be found in your gut. (Related: The health of your gut microbiome could predict your risk of heart disease, researchers find.)

The researchers are hopeful that their findings can be used to help prevent the spread of autoimmune disease among humans. Raulo added that it is crucial to learn what makes up a healthy gut microbiome and how this is connected to the wider social and ecological environment.

Discovering the link between that social environment and stress and the gut microbiome could even help explain why the western world goes through several epidemics of autoimmune diseases. In time, further studies might even lead to a cure.

Raulo concluded that the microbiome is the link between human internal physiology and the external ecosystem that could help humans learn their limits. He shared, “When tackling modern epidemics of autoimmune disease, we cannot ignore the environmental problems our ecosystem is facing, nor the social problems our culture is facing.”

You can read more articles about other strange and wonder scientific phenomena like gut bacteria among lemurs at

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