Archaea are habitual residents of the human gut flora but are detected at substantially lower frequencies than bacteria. Previous studies have indicated that each human harbors very few archaeal species. However, the low diversity of human-associated archaea that has been detected could be due to the preponderance of bacteria in these communities, such that relatively few sequences are classified as Archaea even when microbiomes are sampled deeply. Moreover, the universal prokaryotic primer pair typically used to interrogate microbial diversity has low specificity to the archaeal domain, potentially leaving vast amounts of diversity unobserved. As a result, the prevalence, diversity, and distribution of archaea may be substantially underestimated. Here we evaluate archaeal diversity in gut microbiomes using an approach that targets virtually all known members of this domain. Comparing microbiomes across five great ape species allowed us to examine the dynamics of archaeal lineages over evolutionary time scales. These analyses revealed hundreds of gut-associated archaeal lineages, indicating that upwards of 90% of the archaeal diversity in the human and great ape gut microbiomes has been overlooked. Additionally, these results indicate a progressive reduction in archaeal diversity in the human lineage, paralleling the decline reported for bacteria.
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