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Background: In social insects, identical genotypes can show extreme lifespan variation providing a unique perspective on age-associated microbial succession. In honey bees, short- and long-lived host phenotypes are polarized by a suite of age-associated factors including hormones, nutrition, immune senescence, and oxidative stress. Similar to other model organisms, the aging gut microbiota of short-lived (worker) honey bees accrue Proteobacteria and are depleted of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, consistent with a suite of host senescence markers. In contrast, long-lived (queen) honey bees maintain youthful cellular function with much lower expression of oxidative stress genes, suggesting a very different host environment for age-associated microbial succession.
Conclusions: We present a model system linking changes in gut microbiota to diet and longevity, two of the most confounding variables in human microbiota research. The pattern of age-associated succession in the queen microbiota is largely the reverse of that demonstrated for workers. The guts of short-lived worker phenotypes are progressively dominated by three major Proteobacteria, but these same species were sparse or significantly depleted in long-lived queen phenotypes. More broadly, age-related changes in the honey bee microbiota reflect the regulatory anatomy of reproductive host metabolism. Our synthesis suggests that the evolution of colony-level reproductive physiology formed the context for host-microbial interactions and age-related succession of honey bee microbiota.