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Michael L Power Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, District of Columbia, USA

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Carly R Muletz-Wolz Center for Conservation Genomics, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, District of Columbia, USA

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Sally L Bornbusch Center for Conservation Genomics, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, District of Columbia, USA
Department of Nutrition Science, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, District of Columbia, USA

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Graphical abstract

Abstract

Milk is an ancient, fundamental mammalian adaptation that provides nutrition and biochemical communication to offspring. Microbiomes have been detected in milk of all species studied to date. In this review, we discuss: (a) routes by which microbes may enter milk; (b) evidence for proposed milk microbiome adaptive functions; (c) variation in milk microbiomes across mammals; and (d) future research directions, including suggestions for how to address outstanding questions on the viability and functionality of milk microbiomes. Milk microbes may be sourced from the maternal gastrointestinal tract, oral, skin, and mammary gland microbiomes and from neonatal oral and skin microbiomes. Given the variety of microbial sources, stochastic processes strongly influence milk microbiome assembly, but milk microbiomes appear to be influenced by maternal evolutionary history, diet, environment, and milk nutrients. Milk microbes have been proposed to colonize the neonatal intestinal tract and produce gene and metabolic products that influence physiology, metabolism, and immune system development. Limited epidemiological data indicate that early-life exposure to milk microbes can result in positive, long-term health outcomes. Milk microbiomes can be modified by dietary changes including providing the mother with probiotics and prebiotics. Milk replacers (i.e. infant formula) may benefit from supplementation with probiotics and prebiotics, but data are lacking on probiotics’ usefulness, and supplementation should be evidence based. Overall, milk microbiome literature outside of human and model systems is scarce. We highlight the need for mechanistic studies in model species paired with comparative studies across mammals to further our understanding of mammalian milk microbiome evolution. A broader study of milk microbiomes has the potential to inform animal care with relevance to ex situ endangered species.

Lay summary

Milk is an ancient adaptation that supports the growth and development of mammalian neonates and infants. Beyond its fundamental nutritional function, milk influences all aspects of neonatal development, especially immune function. All kinds of milks so far studied have contained a milk microbiome. In this review, we focus on what is known about the collection of bacterial members found in milk microbiomes. Milk microbiomes include members sourced from maternal and infant microbiomes and they appear to be influenced by maternal evolutionary history, diet, milk nutrients, and environment, as well as by random chance. Once a neonate begins nursing, microbes from milk colonize their gut and produce byproducts that influence their physiology, metabolism, and immune development. Empirical data on milk microbiomes outside of humans and model systems are sparse. Greater study of milk microbiomes across mammals will expand our understanding of mammalian evolution and improve the health of animals under human care.

Open access