Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

IBES graduate affiliate Bianca Brown, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, is applying this study to wild animals in Kenya in an effort to understand how environmental change is affecting these essential microbial communities, and how they change across and within host species. 

Bianca Brown

When Brown began her research, she expected to find that species’ microbiomes would change rapidly alongside changes in their environment. But rather than discovering a universal, bacterial microcosm of real-time environmental variations, her work has revealed a more complex dynamic.

“Some species’ microbiomes are more responsive to environmental perturbations than others,” she says. “Additionally, the microbiome is simultaneously affected by both evolutionary history and current day factors such as diet and environmental context.”

Brown’s work is driven by global biodiversity loss, a shift that is happening as much in the invisible microbiome as it is at the macroscopic level. This decrease in microbial diversity may have dire consequences for animals’ health. 

“Threatened wildlife populations experience [microbial] shifts that correlate with animals’ reduced defense against pathogens, or reduced ability to extract nutrients from the food that they eat,” she says. “There are initiatives to ‘re-seed’ or rewild the microbiome to facilitate species’ recovery and reintroduction.”

Many conservation scholars like Brown spend their time studying the guts of captive animals in zoos and laboratories; but, as she explains, there are drawbacks to this approach. Such animals often have microbiomes that are less diverse than wild species. 

“By studying the microbiome of wild animals, I hope to add a greater understanding of microbiomes in natural systems,” she says. “By accomplishing this, I can start to decipher the role of the microbiome in species ecology and evolution, and assess the utility of the microbiome for conservation purposes.”