Giant Panda Stays Plump on Bamboo Diet Thanks to Gut Bacteria

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Changes in the microorganisms of the intestine, which occur as a result of changes in the availability of food, have long been observed in many animals, including in some species of monkeys, which eat fresh leaves and fruits in summer, and in winter – bark. A similar shift is also observed in some human tribes in Tanzania, whose diet changes throughout the year.

Changes in the panda’s gut microbiota during the season when nutritious bamboo shoots are available allow giant herbivores to gain more weight and store fat, compensating for nutrient deficiencies, for example, in seasons when it is only possible to chew bamboo leaves, a new study published in the journal “Cell Reports” on Tuesday.

“This is the first time we have established a causal relationship between the panda’s gut microbiome and its phenotype,” said one of the co-authors. “We’ve learned that these pandas have a different set of gut microbiota during the long branch-eating season, and they’re very obviously full during this time of year.”

A team of researchers from the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by Fuwen Wei, sought to determine whether changes in microorganisms affect metabolism. Scientists conducted a number of experiments on two groups of mice implanted with panda feces, collected during the plant-eating and leaf-eating season, and placed on a “bamboo-based” diet.

The first group of mice gained weight very quickly and had more fat than the second group, despite eating the same amount of food.

“The causal search for host phenotype and gut microbes in wild animals is just beginning,” the researchers say. “Identification of bacteria that are beneficial to animals is very important, because one day we may be able to treat certain diseases with probiotics.”

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