HI network member Katherine Amato recently spoke with HCEO about her research on the gut microbiome, primate behavior, and ecology. 

"What I’m really interested in is understanding how gut microbes affect the hosts that they live in, from more of an evolutionary perspective," she says.

Amato uses her background as a field primatologist to study human-gut microbe interactions. One facet she has studied recently is the role of the microbiome in obesity. For example, certain types of gut microbes can contribute to obesity, by providing more energy to hosts and altering host metabolic programming. This is generally considered harmful, as it can lead to fat accumulation if that energy is not being used. But in some situations, like for pregnant women, or during food shortages, this metabolic programming could be useful. "How do we understand how that situation changes from being something that’s helpful to something that’s potentially harmful?" she asks.

"A lot of the human populations that have been studied to date are populations that are relatively well-off," she notes, "but we also know that there are many human populations that do struggle with those sorts of nutritional challenges. So it’s become really interesting to me to try to understand: How can we apply what we’ve learned from non-human primate populations that are in those more challenging types of contexts, to human populations that may be in more analogous situations?"

In looking at the similarities and difference between human and non-human primate microbiota, she hopes to understand what makes human unique.

"I’m interested in taking this evolutionary viewpoint and looking at whether there might be a reason, evolutionarily speaking, that humans have a distinct gut microbial community," Amato says. "And is that associated with physiology, and can that tell us about our risks for certain diseases?"

Amato is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University.