Animals that undergo seasonal cycles of feeding and fasting have adaptations that maintain integrity of organ systems when dietary nutrients are lacking. Food deprivation also challenges the gut microbiota, which relies heavily on host diet for metabolic substrates and the gastrointestinal tract, which is influenced by enteral nutrients and microbial activity. Winter fasting in hibernators shifts the microbiota to favor taxa with the capacity to degrade and utilize host-derived substrates and disfavor taxa that prefer complex plant polysaccharides. Microbiome alterations may contribute to hibernation-induced changes in the intestinal immune system, epithelial barrier function, and other host features that are affected by microbial short-chain fatty acids and other metabolites. Understanding mechanisms by which the hibernator host and its gut symbionts adapt to the altered nutritional landscape during winter fasting may provide insights into protective mechanisms that are compromised when nonhibernating species, such as humans, undergo long periods of enteral nutrient deprivation.


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