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Characterization of shifts of koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) intestinal microbial communities associated with antibiotic treatment.


Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are arboreal marsupials native to Australia that eat a specialized diet of almost exclusively eucalyptus leaves. Microbes in koala intestines are known to break down otherwise toxic compounds, such as tannins, in eucalyptus leaves. Infections by Chlamydia, obligate intracellular bacterial pathogens, are highly prevalent in koala populations. If animals with Chlamydia infections are received by wildlife hospitals, a range of antibiotics can be used to treat them. However, previous studies suggested that koalas can suffer adverse side effects during antibiotic treatment. This study aimed to use 16S rRNA gene sequences derived from koala feces to characterize the intestinal microbiome of koalas throughout antibiotic treatment and identify specific taxa associated with koala health after treatment. Although differences in the alpha diversity were observed in the intestinal flora between treated and untreated koalas and between koalas treated with different antibiotics, these differences were not statistically significant. The alpha diversity of microbial communities from koalas that lived through antibiotic treatment versus those who did not was significantly greater, however. Beta diversity analysis largely confirmed the latter observation, revealing that the overall communities were different between koalas on antibiotics that died versus those that survived or never received antibiotics. Using both machine learning and OTU (operational taxonomic unit) co-occurrence network analyses, we found that OTUs that are very closely related to Lonepinella koalarum, a known tannin degrader found by culture-based methods to be present in koala intestines, was correlated with a koala's health status. This is the first study to characterize the time course of effects of antibiotics on koala intestinal microbiomes. Our results suggest it may be useful to pursue alternative treatments for Chlamydia infections without the use of antibiotics or the development of Chlamydia-specific antimicrobial compounds that do not broadly affect microbial communities.

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