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Research into monkey diets reveals secrets to bacteria in human gut

Amanda Melin studies capuchin monkeys to understand role of bacteria in human diseases

University of Calgary’s Amanda Melin is studying the bacteria living inside the guts of capuchin monkeys to help explain the importance of healthy and diverse bacteria in humans. Photos courtesy of Amanda Melin

By Laura Herperger
May 12, 2016

By 6 a.m., while most of the world is still asleep, Amanda Melin has narrowly escaped disturbing a venomous pit viper, swept aside a few hundred stinging acacia ants, and pursued a troop of capuchin monkeys through a few kilometres of Santa Rosa’s dry forest in Costa Rica.

All this effort was to reach an anthropologist’s most treasured prize — a small pile of monkey droppings.

Monkey feces reveal the secrets to bacteria in the monkey gut, and because capuchins are omnivorous primates like humans, they also connect to changes in human gut bacteria. Humans host a complex community of micro-organisms which play a role in metabolic, nutritional, physiological and immunological processes in the human body.

“This research will help us learn more about the importance of healthy and diverse bacteria in the body and its numerous roles in promoting health and protecting us from disease,” says Melin, a university alumna, assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine.

University supports first primate field research station in North America

Speaking in Spanish frequently, Melin clocks 10 hours daily in the forest, followed by more time in her portable genetics field lab, while working at the site. Established by the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology 35 years ago, it remains among the longest running primate field research programs in the world.

Working with wild animals, it’s impossible to obtain blood samples or cheek swabs. So to do primate DNA analysis, Melin gathers samples from the monkeys’ droppings. Analysis of the feces will explain what kind of bacteria exist in the gut.

“I take the samples back to Calgary to use high-throughput sequencing technologies at the Centre for Health Genomics. We are in the process of identifying, for the first time, how the capuchin intestinal microbiota changes seasonally to adapt to changes in the environment and diet, and to describe the functional genomes of the microbiota," she says. "Our work will help reveal how environmental stressors, including dehydration and lack of food, impacts gut function.”

Diary entry on April 26 from Costa Rica field lab

4 a.m. – 6 a.m. "I’m up eating a bowl of cereal. It’s dark outside. I’ve radioed to the students out in the field on the ‘wake-up’ shift, to find out where they are with the monkeys. We do 10- to 12-hour shifts in the field following the monkeys, so we have to get going quickly. The monkeys move rapidly once they leave the sleep tree, especially in the dry season when there is less food to forage on."

6 a.m. – 8 a.m. "We’re with the monkey troop; they’ve found an acacia tree that produces yellow fruits, but these trees are sympatric with ants that attack the foraging monkeys and us. So we’re trying to avoid the ants while we record behaviour of monkeys,  diet selection and environmental factors such as air temperature and moisture. We are collecting fecal samples, which are placed into sterile containers on ice and shipped back to Calgary in liquid nitrogen dry shippers. Joe Orkin, a postdoc in the Calgary lab, will start the analysis."

8 a.m. – noon "Temperature outside is now plus 35°C,  which means it is very hot for the monkeys and they are resting more often while they are foraging. You really don’t see many leaves and the monkeys are quite easy to spot in the trees. We’re very interested in the impact climate change is having on the diet and food selection of these monkeys and their microbiota." 

Field studies contribute to knowledge of human health

The university alumna travels to her field site in Costa Rica only twice a year to gather what are essential materials for her research back in Calgary. So these visits are very special.

“What I care most about in my research here is to gather valuable information about these wonderful creatures which can contribute to our knowledge of human health, while not disturbing their habitat or their ability to live as wild animals,” says Melin.

Melin’s project is funded by the Eppley Foundation for Scientific Research.

The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.