What we're learning about the reproductive microbiome

January 14, 2020

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Most research has focused on the oral, skin, and gut microbiomes, but bacteria, viruses, and fungi living within our reproductive systems may also affect sperm quality, fertilization, embryo implantation, and other aspects of conception and reproduction. Yet, according to a review published January 14 in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, little is known about the reproductive microbiome.

What we do know is that there are examples of microbes affecting and fertility across the animal kingdom, and that these impacts seem to have important consequences for reproductive biology and behavior.

"Reproductive microbiomes can have significant effects on the reproductive function and performance of both males and females," says senior author Tommaso Pizzari, a zoologist at the University of Oxford. "These studies also shed light on the role of the reproductive microbiome in sexual selection, mating system, and sexual conflict."

While research has begun to link alterations in the vaginal microbiome to adverse pregnancy outcomes in humans, it's unclear how the male reproductive microbiome affects fertility and reproductive success, says first author Melissah Rowe (@melissah_rowe), an evolutionary ecologist who studies reproductive biology and behavior at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology.

"This is surprising, because research has shown that bacteria can damage sperm form and function, and that damaged sperm can contribute to pregnancy failure" Rowe says.

Many major questions remain. Rowe and Pizzari are intrigued by how some microbes benefit one sex or species while harming another. For example, Lactobacilllus—associated with a healthy vaginal in women and high-quality semen in men—seems to negatively affect sperm-swimming speed in chickens. But the authors say that the combination of sequencing advances, genomic resources, and investigations of host sexual behavior will likely lead to more discoveries soon.

More information: Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Rowe et al.: "The Reproductive Microbiome: An Emerging Driver of Sexual Selection, Sexual Conflict, Mating Systems, and Reproductive Isolation" https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(19)30325-8 , DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.11.004

Provided by Cell Press

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