How Lemurs May Hold The Key To Healthy Aging And Even More Space Travel

Dec 19, 2018

Lemurs sit near the base of the primate evolutionary tree. As distant cousins to homosapiens, their behavior, health and evolution may have significant implications for humans. At the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, researchers are actively studying how the curious hibernation pattern of the fat-tailed dwarf lemur may have applications for coma patients and could also help humans better prepare for deep space travel. 

Meanwhile the mouse lemur’s propensity to develop plaques and tangles in their brain could mean they hold clues to better understanding Alzheimer’s disease. Erin Ehmke, director of research at the Duke Lemur Center, shares stories about the exciting applications of lemur research with host Frank Stasio.

They are joined by Duke University doctoral candidate and Duke Lemur Center researcher Lydia Greene who talks about her own investigations into lemur gut microbiomes. 

Interview Highlights

Lydia Greene on how lemurs got to Madagascar:

One of the biggest questions in lemur biology was: How did they actually get to Madagascar. Because early lemurs are living in mainland Africa, and there's 250 miles of Mozambique Channel between them and Madagascar. And so the best evidence that we have pulling together people who study like ocean currents and also genetics and fossil record is that early lemurs rafted on floating massive vegetation about 50 to 60 million years ago across the Mozambique Channel. And they get to Madagascar, and they open their eyes, and there's no other mammal life there. They're the first mammals to get there. And so you have this crazy diversity of habitats, a crazy diversity of food resources, no predators, no competitors, and the lemurs just exploded into all of these niches and exploded into all these different species. And we see the evidence of that today.

Erin Ehmke on hibernation in the fat-tailed dwarf lemur:

It could be an internal genetic trigger for hibernation in the fat-tailed dwarf lemur. Since we share genetic code with the federal dwarf lemur, [the medical community is interested in understanding if] we have that same intrinsic trigger that could be tapped into for long term coma patients to prevent the cell breakdown – deep space travel, could we somehow trigger hibernation in astronauts to help get to deep space travel.

Greene on her work on lemur gut microbes:

The human gut is one of the most densely populated habitats on earth, and lemur guts are also incredibly densely populated. And so what I'm interested in is exploring how these lemurs who eat different foods and have evolved in different habitats have different microbiomes that serve different purposes. So for an animal that eats leaves, the microbes sit in their gut and ferment cellulose or plant fibers into nutrients for the animal. And a large part of an animal's daily energy, if it eats a leafy diet, might come from its microbes. Other animals that eat fruit … Maybe they can – through endogenous or intrinsic self metabolism – digest those sugars and those proteins without the help of their microbes. And so what does their microbiome look like if they're not as reliant on it?  So that sounds really lofty, but on a day to day basis, mostly what I'm doing is staring at animal behinds and waiting for samples … Poop.