Are our microbes part of us? ‘Radical upgrade’ of evolutionary theory

Holobiont image
Image: Margaret McFall-Ngai

Look closely enough at any plant or animal and you will discover a riot of bacteria, fungi and viruses forming a complex and interconnected ecosystem. A recent explosion of research reveals how deeply we rely on our microbial patterns to keep our bodies functioning, raising profound questions about what it means to be an individual.

Some biologists are calling for a radical upgrade of evolutionary theory, arguing that prevailing ideas, developed from the study of bigger, more easily understood organisms, don’t fit nicely into this new world. Others contend that existing theory just needs to be applied more carefully.

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We have never been individuals,” proclaimed a 2012 paper in The Quarterly Review of Biology by Scott Gilbert, a developmental biologist at Swarthmore College, and his colleagues. This bold assertion echoed previous calls for a reconceptualization of complex organisms as new kinds of individuals — holobionts. The term holobiont encompasses a host animal or plant and all its constituent microbes.

Related article:  Ancient African savanna was like a ‘chess board’, broadening the minds of early humans as they hunted for prey

Critics of holobiont-centered theories are not discounting the importance of studying the interconnections between microbes and hosts, but they think the holobiont framework is almost always misleading. They envision the holobiont as an ecological community, not an evolutionary individual. The knowledge that symbiotic relationships with microbes are important “doesn’t mean we have to completely forget what we know about how evolution and natural selection operate,” [evolutionary biologist Joan] Strassmann said.

Read full, original post: Should Evolution Treat Our Microbes as Part of Us?

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