Metagenomic Sequencing Provides Insights into Microbial Detoxification in the Guts of Small Mammalian Herbivores (Neotoma spp.)

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Microbial detoxification of plant toxins influences the use of plants as food sources by herbivores. Stephen’s woodrats (Neotoma stephensi) specialize on juniper, which is defended by oxalate, phenolics and monoterpenes, while closely related N. albigula specialize on cactus, which only contains oxalate. Woodrats maintain two gut chambers harboring dense microbial communities: a foregut chamber proximal to the major site of toxin absorption, and a cecal chamber in their hindgut. We performed several experiments to investigate the location and nature of microbial detoxification in the woodrat gut. First, we measured toxin concentrations across gut chambers of N. stephensi. Compared to food material, oxalate concentrations were immediately lower in the foregut, while concentrations of terpenes remained high in the foregut, and were lowest in the cecal chamber. We conducted metagenomic sequencing of the foregut chambers of both woodrat species and cecal chambers of N. stephensi to compare microbial functions. We found that most genes associated with detoxification were more abundant in the cecal chambers of N. stephensi. However, some genes associated with degradation of oxalate and phenolic compounds were more abundant in the foregut chambers. Thus, microbial detoxification may take place in various chambers depending on the class of chemical compound.


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