Microbial Mediators

Researchers show that symbiotic bacteria can help hyenas communicate with one another.

By | November 11, 2013

FLICKR, LAERTESCTBSymbiotic bacteria that populate the scent glands of hyenas seem to aid chemical communication among the scent-marking mammals, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today (November 11). Michigan State University’s Kevin Theis and his colleagues, who had previously shown that hyena social groups harbor unique communities of bacteria that produce signature smells, used next-generation sequencing to investigate the microbes found in the scent glands of wild spotted and striped hyenas. They found that the bacterial communities were dominated by fermentive species and that microbial profiles between spotted and striped hyenas differed.

“It’s an extremely important study showing the role of bacteria mediating interactions between mammals,” Penn State University’s David Hughes, who was not involved in the work, told LiveScience. “Only now are we discovering the role of what we think of as inconsequential passengers—the bacteria—and how important they are.”

Theis told Nature that his team was somewhat surprised by the bacterial communities it found. “The diversity of the bacteria is enough to potentially explain the origin of these [scent] signals,” he said.

In their paper, the researchers suggested that their bacteria-based fermentation hypothesis of chemical communication may “prove broadly applicable among scent-marking mammals.”


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Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 293

November 12, 2013

Re: “Only now are we discovering the role of what we think of as inconsequential passengers—the bacteria—and how important they are.”

The microbial metabolism of nutrients in bodily secretions that results in sex differences in species-specific social odors called pheromones, which correlate with reproductive state, has been detailed in publications that predate "A Fear of Pheromones" by Lewis Thomas  (1971). The idea that more than 40 years later "Only now are we discovering the role..." exemplifies how that fear has retarded scientific progress across disciplines.

Progress has been retarded despite what is known about the conserved molecular mechanisms of nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled alternative splicings that link the epigenetic 'landscape' to the physical landscape of DNA in the organized genomes of species from microbes to man. See also: Nutrient--dependent / pheromone--controlled adaptive evolution: a model for examples of what the microbiome contributes to the divergence of species (e.g., everything).

What did you think caused species diversity? Is there a model for that?

Kudos to Kevin Theis and his colleagues for making more progress towards extending molecular epigenetics across species than might otherwise have been considered possible by theoretical biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and human ethologists who have not yet learned that Bird odour predicts reproductive success just as Scent marking increases male reproductive success in wild house mice, and that pheromones control the physiology of nutrient-dependent reproduction across species.


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