The Story Behind the Launch of the Kittybiome Cat Microbiome Project
Guest Post by Holly Ganz (Project Scientist in the Eisen Lab)
Recently a group of us launched a Kitty Kickstarter campaign where we offer to sequence the bacteria in your cat’s gut microbiome as part of a long term research project to learn more about how microbes may affect cat health, behavior and evolutionary history (and vice-versa). Jonathan has written about the origins story here. This project complements our interests in the microbiology of animal shelters and the evolution of bacterial communities in the Felidae. In addition, we thought that other people like cats too and might be interested in learning more about the hidden life of their cats. We have had an overwhelming response that vastly exceeded our expectations (and we are still welcoming more kitty “pawticipants”).
We have been asked “Why cats?” Personally I think it’s hard not to be fanatical about cats. The diversity of cats is astonishing and most people agree that cheetahs, leopards, lions and tigers are amazing. And when you see a lion in the wild for the first time, it’s hard not to see some of your house cat in there, in the way that it walks, naps, yawns, and even pounces (but not so much the roar). Also it’s really interesting that domestic cats have been associated with people for something like 10,000 years. Several years ago I decided to take what I learned from studying microbial ecology in soil (and how it might affect the transmission of anthrax in zebras) and apply it towards understanding the microbial ecology of the animals themselves. I believe that research in the microbiome of cats (and humans) will eventually lead to useful interventions.
In our kittybiome project, we aim to sequence the gut microbiome of 1,000 cats and by doing so begin to capture the variation in gut bacteria in different populations of cats (both domestic and wild). In domestic cats, we will compare cats living in houses with cats living in shelters and feral cats. We are starting to compare cats with different health conditions and have had some cats with diabetes and IBD join the project. This aspect of the project is really important because these conditions are fairly common and there is a lot of room for improvement in how cats suffering from IBD in particular are treated.
We are also collaborating with Adrian Tordiffe at the University of Pretoria, South Africa and the Africat Foundation on a study on how the diet of captive cheetahs might affect the gut microbiome. Here we hypothesize that the unnatural diet of captive cheetahs produces changes in the gut microbiota that may result in some of chronic diseases common in captive cheetahs.
In addition to being fanatical about cats and passionate about poop, I am especially interested in how social behavior affects the composition and function of microbial communities in cats (in their poop and their anal glands!). (My life was changed by reading about hyena scent gland bacteria.) The evolution of the interaction between cats and their symbiotic scent gland bacteria fascinates me. In the Serengeti, residential territorial cheetahs have been observed scent marking on an hourly basis. Domestic cats are really interesting because feral cats form social colonies. The only other cats that are social are lions (who form prides) and cheetahs (who form coalitions). We are comparing these cats with some social structure with some of their close relatives who are solitary (black-footed cats, leopards, and pumas).