Gut #microbiome heritability is nearly universal but environmentally contingent

Baboons inform on human gut microbiota
Commensal bacteria are found throughout an organism, but it is not known whether associations between gut bacteria and their host are heritable. Grieneisen et al. examined changes in the microbiomes of 585 wild baboons from fecal samples collected over 14 years (see the Perspective by Cortes-Ortiz and Amato). Almost all microbiome traits tested demonstrated some level of statistically significant heritability. Most heritability values were low but varied over time correlating with the age of the host. Baboons live in an environment similar to that postulated for early humans and have a microbiome similar to that of humans.

Thus, this heritability of the microbiome may reflect similar genetic determinants in humans, for which similar datasets are not available.

Relatives have more similar gut microbiomes than nonrelatives, but the degree to which this similarity results from shared genotypes versus shared environments has been controversial. Here, we leveraged 16,234 gut microbiome profiles, collected over 14 years from 585 wild baboons, to reveal that host genetic effects on the gut microbiome are nearly universal. Controlling for diet, age, and socioecological variation, 97% of microbiome phenotypes were significantly heritable, including several reported as heritable in humans. Heritability was typically low (mean = 0.068) but was systematically greater in the dry season, with low diet diversity, and in older hosts.

We show that longitudinal profiles and large sample sizes are crucial to quantifying microbiome heritability, and indicate scope for selection on microbiome characteristics as a host phenotype.