The primate body hosts trillions of microbes. Interactions between primate hosts and these microbes profoundly affect primate physiology, reproduction, health, survival, and ultimately, evolution. It is increasingly clear that primate health cannot be understood fully without knowledge of host-microbial interactions. Our goals here are to review what is known about microbiomes of the female reproductive tract and to explore several factors that influence variation within individuals, as well as within and between primate species. Much of our knowledge of microbial variation derives from studies of humans, and from microbes located in nonreproductive regions (e.g., the gut). We review work suggesting that the vaginal microbiota affects female health, fecundity, and pregnancy outcomes, demonstrating the selective potential for these agents. We explore the factors that correlate with microbial variation within species. Initial colonization by microbes depends on the manner of birth; most microbial variation is structured by estrogen levels that change with age (i.e., at puberty and menopause) and through the menstrual cycle. Microbial communities vary by location within the vagina and can depend on the sampling methods used (e.g., swab, lavage, or pap smear). Interindividual differences also exist, and while this variation is not completely understood, evidence points more to differences in estrogen levels, rather than differences in external physical environment. When comparing across species, reproductive-age humans show distinct microbial communities, generally dominated by Lactobacillus, unlike other primates. We develop evolutionary hypotheses to explain the marked differences in microbial communities. While much remains to be done to test these hypotheses, we argue that the ample variation in primate mating and reproductive behavior offers excellent opportunities to evaluate host-microbe coevolution and adaptation.
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