Geographical variation of human gut microbial composition

Taichi A. Suzuki, Michael Worobey


Although we know there is considerable variation in gut microbial composition within host species, little is known about how this variation is shaped and why such variation exists. In humans, obesity is associated with the relative abundance of two dominant bacterial phyla: an increase in the proportion of Firmicutes and a decrease in the proportion of Bacteroidetes. As there is evidence that humans have adapted to colder climates by increasing their body mass (e.g. Bergmann's rule), we tested whether Firmicutes increase and Bacteroidetes decrease with latitude, using 1020 healthy individuals drawn from 23 populations and six published studies. We found a positive correlation between Firmicutes and latitude and a negative correlation between Bacteroidetes and latitude. The overall pattern appears robust to sex, age and bacterial detection methods. Comparisons between African Americans and native Africans and between European Americans and native Europeans suggest no evidence of host genotype explaining the observed patterns. The variation of gut microbial composition described here is consistent with the pattern expected by Bergmann's rule. This surprising link between large-scale geography and human gut microbial composition merits further investigation.

  • Received December 4, 2013.
  • Accepted January 17, 2014.
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