Conservation research has historically been conducted at the macro level, focusing on animals and plants and their role in the wider ecosystem. However, there is a growing appreciation of the importance of microbial communities in conservation. Most microbiome research in conservation thus far has used amplicon sequencing methods to assess the taxonomic composition of microbial communities and inferred functional capabilities from these data. However, as manipulation of the microbiome as a conservation tool becomes more and more feasible, there is a growing need to understand the direct functional consequences of shifts in microbiome composition. This review outlines the latest advances in microbiome research from a functional perspective and how these data can be used to inform conservation strategies. This review will also consider some of the challenges faced when studying the microbiomes of wild animals and how they can be overcome by careful study design and sampling methods. Environmental changes brought about by climate change or direct human actions have the potential to alter the taxonomic composition of microbiomes in wild populations. Understanding how taxonomic shifts affect the function of microbial communities is important for identifying species most threatened by potential disruption to their microbiome. Preservation or even restoration of these functions has the potential to be a powerful tool in conservation biology and a shift towards functional characterisation of gut microbiome diversity will be an important first step.
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