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Comparative Digestive Physiology

  1. William H. Karasov1,
  2. Angela E. Douglas2

Published Online: 1 APR 2013

DOI: 10.1002/cphy.c110054

Comprehensive Physiology

Comprehensive Physiology

How to Cite

H. Karasov, W. and Douglas, A. E. 2013. Comparative Digestive Physiology. Comprehensive Physiology. 3:741–783.

Author Information

  1. 1

    Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin

  2. 2

    Department of Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 APR 2013


In vertebrates and invertebrates, morphological and functional features of gastrointestinal (GI) tracts generally reflect food chemistry, such as content of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and material(s) refractory to rapid digestion (e.g., cellulose). The expression of digestive enzymes and nutrient transporters approximately matches the dietary load of their respective substrates, with relatively modest excess capacity. Mechanisms explaining differences in hydrolase activity between populations and species include gene copy number variations and single-nucleotide polymorphisms. Transcriptional and posttranscriptional adjustments mediate phenotypic changes in the expression of hydrolases and transporters in response to dietary signals. Many species respond to higher food intake by flexibly increasing digestive compartment size. Fermentative processes by symbiotic microorganisms are important for cellulose degradation but are relatively slow, so animals that rely on those processes typically possess special enlarged compartment(s) to maintain a microbiota and other GI structures that slow digesta flow. The taxon richness of the gut microbiota, usually identified by 16S rRNA gene sequencing, is typically an order of magnitude greater in vertebrates than invertebrates, and the interspecific variation in microbial composition is strongly influenced by diet. Many of the nutrient transporters are orthologous across different animal phyla, though functional details may vary (e.g., glucose and amino acid transport with K+ rather than Na+ as a counter ion). Paracellular absorption is important in many birds. Natural toxins are ubiquitous in foods and may influence key features such as digesta transit, enzymatic breakdown, microbial fermentation, and absorption. © 2013 American Physiological Society. Compr Physiol 3:741-483, 2013.