Biology

50,000-year-old poop reveals Neanderthals' gut microbiomes

50,000-year-old poop reveals N...
It turns out some bacteria found living in our gut today were with our ancestors long before Homo sapiens arose as a species
It turns out some bacteria found living in our gut today were with our ancestors long before Homo sapiens arose as a species
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It turns out some bacteria found living in our gut today were with our ancestors long before Homo sapiens arose as a species
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It turns out some bacteria found living in our gut today were with our ancestors long before Homo sapiens arose as a species

Humans have a symbiotic relationship with the trillions of microbes living in our gut – and now researchers have found that this relationship spans hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists studied 50,000-year-old Neanderthal poop, and found traces of gut microbes still present in modern humans, suggesting the symbiosis dates back to before our last common ancestor.

Inside all of us is a complex community of bacteria, viruses, archaea and fungi, and as scientists continue to unravel the web we’re finding that their reach extends much further than we realized. Our gut microbiomes may affect our blood sugar levels, metabolism, ability to lose weight or sleep well, and influence our chances of developing diseases like diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even depression.

With our overall health tied so inextricably to these microorganisms, we should be concerned about their health too. Worryingly, the diversity is dropping thanks to our modern lifestyles full of processed foods and overuse of antibiotics.

So for the new study, researchers at the University of Bologna set out to identify our “old friends” – the species that have been with us the longest and as such, are most likely tied to evolutionary benefits. That can help us prioritize which ones to protect, and develop new treatments to target them.

To do so, the researchers collected samples of ancient feces, compacted in the soil of a cave in Spain known to have been inhabited by Neanderthals for thousands of years. They were then able to analyze the DNA of the microbes contained within, getting a glimpse into the gut microbiomes of these extinct human relatives.

Intriguingly, the team found traces of many bacteria known to inhabit human intestines, including Blautia, Dorea, Roseburia, Ruminococcus, Faecalibacterium and Bifidobacterium. These “old friends” must be exceptionally old, it turns out, having been with our ancestors long before Homo sapiens arose as a species.

"Through the analysis of ancient DNA, we were able to isolate a core of microorganisms shared with modern Homo sapiens," says Silvia Turroni, first author of the study. "This finding allows us to state that these ancient micro-organisms populated the intestine of our species before the separation between Sapiens and Neanderthals, which occurred about 700,000 years ago.”

With these oldest friends identified, the researchers say that we can begin to protect them and, by extension, ourselves.

"These results allow us to understand which components of the human gut microbiota are essential for our health, as they are integral elements of our biology also from an evolutionary point of view,” says Marco Candela, corresponding author of the study. "Nowadays there is a progressive reduction of our microbiota diversity due to the context of our modern life: this research group's findings could guide us in devising diet- and lifestyle-tailored solutions to counteract this phenomenon.”

The research was published in the journal Communications Biology.

Source: University of Bologna via Eurekalert

6 comments
6 comments
Nick Arrizza
With studies such as this and also current developing research on the gut microbiome composition and its relation to illness (see: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7073751/) it will be exciting to see how we learn to optimize our health and longevity!
buzzclick
Paleo diet vs. fast food vs. vegetarian omnivore?...
Fast food loses. There isn't much good nutrition in a diet often filled with hamburgers, french fries, fried chicken or sandwiches filled with cold cuts. It's a no-brainer. Today our lifespans are much greater, but if people paid more attention to the condition of their biome, we'd live even longer. Trouble is, many of us didn't know this til later on in life.
JohnWhite
And I thought I had bad constipation - 50,000 year old poo!
TechGazer
Maybe they can fund further research by offering prehistoric Fecal Microbiota Transplants. I'm pretty sure that they'd find some customers.
Jinpa
I think one figure in the story is off by an order of magnitude. "This finding allows us to state that these ancient micro-organisms populated the intestine of our species before the separation between Sapiens and Neanderthals, which occurred about 700,000 years ago.” There is one too many zeroes there. It might be approximately accurate at 70,000, but since Neanderthals existed only for about 350,000 years, and since they died out about 20-40,000 years ago, and since Homo sapiens only emerged within the last 100,000 years, and since the two species cohabited the Earth for fewer than 40,000 years, the 700,000 figure can't be right. For a current reference, see the 2020 book Kindred, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes.
JohnAyer
According to the (fallible) Wikipedia, various techniques for estimating the date of divergence between us and our Neanderthal cousins yield dates of 315,000 to 800,000 years ago.