Interactions with microbes affect many aspects of animal biology, including immune system development, nutrition and health. In vertebrates, the gut microbiota is dominated by a small subset of phyla, but the species composition within these phyla is typically not conserved. Moreover, several recent studies have shown that bacterial species in the gut are composed of a multitude of strains, which frequently co-exist in their host, and may be host-specific. However, since the study of intra-species diversity is challenging, particularly in the setting of complex, host-associated microbial communities, our current understanding of the distribution, evolution and functional relevance of intra-species diversity in the gut is scarce. In order to unravel how genomic diversity translates into phenotypic diversity, community analyses going beyond 16S rRNA profiling, in combination with experimental approaches, are needed. Recently, the honeybee has emerged as a promising model for studying gut bacterial communities, particularly in terms of strain-level diversity. Unlike most other invertebrates, the honeybee gut is colonized by a remarkably consistent and specific core microbiota, which is dominated by only eight bacterial species. As for the vertebrate gut microbiota, these species are composed of highly diverse strains suggesting that similar evolutionary forces shape gut community structures in vertebrates and social insects. In this review, we outline current knowledge on the evolution and functional relevance of strain diversity within the gut microbiota, including recent insights gained from mammals and other animals such as the honeybee. We discuss methodological approaches and propose possible future avenues for studying strain diversity in complex bacterial communities.
Keywords: community analysis; gut microbiota evolution; honeybee; metagenomics; strain diversity; sub-species diversity.