What insights can we gain from the gorilla microbiome?

– Sept. 24, 2023

September 24th is World Gorilla Day: the perfect day to delve deeper into the gorilla's microbiome. In fact, Micropia professor Remco Kort has conducted research on the difference in the composition of the gut microbiome between wild gorillas and gorillas living in ARTIS. This research is not only relevant for the gorilla's microbiome but also for that of humans. Our microbiome has also undergone changes since we abandoned our hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

A healthy gut microbiome through fiber

Researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam examined the feces of gorillas living in ARTIS and compared it to that of wild gorillas. Through various analyses, they identified the specific gut bacteria, fungi, and viruses present in the feces. There was indeed a difference in the microbial composition between wild gorillas and zoo gorillas. This difference can be attributed to the fact that wild gorillas often have a fiber-rich diet, whereas zoo gorillas consume more oligosaccharides (simple sugars). Part of what you eat also serves as food for the microbes in your intestines. Every human, and similarly every gorilla, has a gut microbiome specialized in digesting their specific diet.

Gorillas, in particular, rely heavily on their gut microbiome to digest fiber-rich plants. What's remarkable about fiber is that it reaches the large intestine intact and is converted into short-chain fatty acids by our gut bacteria. These fatty acids not only serve as a vital source of energy but also offer numerous health benefits, including their anti-inflammatory effects and their role in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.

Valuable research

The study revealed that zoo gorillas had far fewer bacteria of the genus Olsenella, which are specialized in fiber digestion. However, fiber-digesting fungi like Neocallimastigomycetes were still present in the intestines of ARTIS gorillas, despite the dietary change. This research provides valuable insights into the impact of zoo life on animals. For example, the diet of ARTIS gorillas has already been adjusted to include fiber-rich willow branches in addition to their regular food.

What about humans?

Another study indicates that the situation is not different for humans. Over the past 10,000 years, humans have undergone significant lifestyle changes, transitioning from hunter-gatherers to urban dwellers. Particularly in the last 200 years, with the industrial revolution, our way of life has shifted further away from nature. We now consume processed foods, which exposes us to fewer bacteria and reduces our fiber intake, leading to a disconnection from the natural world.

However, a handful of communities around the world still maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a way of life we followed for over 100,000 years as humans. One of these communities is the Hadza, located in Tanzania. Researchers compared the Hadza's microbiome to that of residents of places like Nepal and California. They discovered that microbial diversity decreases as a result of a modern lifestyle, including the consumption of processed foods, as it becomes more industrialized.

What does this mean for us? Researchers have shown that due to a lack of fiber intake, we are also at risk of losing fiber-digesting bacteria in our intestines. If you consume little fiber, your gut microbiome becomes less diverse. Therefore, it's crucial to continue enriching our gut microbiome with a fiber-rich diet, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains.


Houtkamp, I. M., van Zijll Langhout, M., Bessem, M., Pirovano, W., & Kort, R. (2023). Multiomics characterisation of the zoo-housed gorilla gut microbiome reveals bacterial community compositions shifts, fungal cellulose-degrading, and archaeal methanogenic activity. Gut Microbiome, 4, e12.

Carter, M. M., Olm, M. R., Merrill, B. D., Dahan, D., Tripathi, S., Spencer, S. P., ... & Sonnenburg, J. L. (2023). Ultra-deep sequencing of Hadza hunter-gatherers recovers vanishing gut microbes. Cell.

Image: microENVISION