Organisms are shaped by their environment: they must survive and thrive under current conditions, and they must anticipate future changes in these conditions. Usually the environment is understood as a combination of abiotic (e.g., weather, nesting opportunities) and biotic factors (e.g., social environment, food availability, predation pressure). But in addition, animals interact with a hidden environment or ecosystem, one comprising all sorts of microbial life. These microbial ecosystems can be a trait of the broader environment in which an animal lives, a trait of an animal hosting the microbial ecosystem, or some combination of the two
The gut microbiome is one of the better studied host-associated microbial ecosystems. Gut microbiota have complex symbiotic relationships with their hosts, and exert many profound and beneficial effects on their host. Gut microbes are important for development, immune function, digestion and metabolism, and they even can influence behaviour (the gut-brain-axe). On its turn, the host influences its gut microbe community via genotype, phenotype, behaviour (e.g., hibernation) and especially diet.
The complex interactions between host and microbiome have led to the introduction of the ‘holobiont’ (host plus all associated microbiota) and ‘hologenome’ (collective microbiota plus host genome) concepts. These concepts assume that the holobiont is the unit upon which natural selection acts. Following this, microbiomes should vary among hosts, be consistent within individuals, and be heritable; all having important evolutionary implications.
We aim to investigate how the gut microbiome impacts the ecology and life history of their hosts, with the focus on birds. Our main projects involve:
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