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Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2013 Jan 1;304(1):R33-42. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00387.2012. Epub 2012 Nov 14.

Seasonal restructuring of the ground squirrel gut microbiota over the annual hibernation cycle.

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1Department of Comparative Biosciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 53706, USA.


Many hibernating mammals suspend food intake during winter, relying solely on stored lipids to fuel metabolism. Winter fasting in these species eliminates a major source of degradable substrates to support growth of gut microbes, which may affect microbial community structure and host-microbial interactions. We explored the effect of the annual hibernation cycle on gut microbiotas using deep sequencing of 16S rRNA genes from ground squirrel cecal contents. Squirrel microbiotas were dominated by members of the phyla Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Verrucomicrobia. UniFrac analysis showed that microbiotas clustered strongly by season, and maternal influences, diet history, host age, and host body temperature had minimal effects. Phylogenetic diversity and numbers of operational taxonomic units were lowest in late winter and highest in the spring after a 2-wk period of refeeding. Hibernation increased relative abundance of Bacteroidetes and Verrucomicrobia, phyla that contain species capable of surviving on host-derived substrates such as mucins, and reduced relative abundance of Firmicutes, many of which prefer dietary polysaccharides. Hibernation reduced cecal short-chain fatty acid and ammonia concentrations, and increased and decreased concentrations of acetate and butyrate, respectively. These results indicate that the ground squirrel microbiota is restructured each year in a manner that reflects differences in microbial preferences for dietary vs. host-derived substrates, and thus the competitive abilities of different taxa to survive in the altered environment in the hibernator gut.

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