Immunity and the emergence of individuality

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From Groups to Individuals: Evolution and Emerging Individuality

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Pradeu, Thomas
MIT Press
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Since (Buss 1987), it has become clear that individuality is not to be considered as a given, but rather as something which needs to be explained. How has individuality emerged through evolution, and how has it subsequently been maintained? In particular, why is it that multicellular organisms appeared and persisted, despite the obvious interest of each cell of favoring its own replication? Several biologists see the immune system as one of the key components for explaining the maintenance of multicellular organisms’ individuality. Indeed, the immune system exerts a constant surveillance on all the constituents of the organism, including “cheaters” like tumor cells, which favor their own replication at the expense of the whole organism. In most cases, the immune system eliminates those cheaters. This is the “immune surveillance” hypothesis, first suggested by Burnet and Thomas (Burnet 1957; Thomas 1959; Burnet 1970). In this paper, I account for recent findings on immune surveillance in order to determine the precise role of the immune system in the emergence and maintenance of individuality. This investigation gives rise to a critical question for the domain of biological individuality: should immunity be considered as something unique to multicellular organisms? If it is indeed unique, should the multicellular organism be considered as an individual to a higher degree than any other living entity (genomes, cells, groups, etc.)? If it is not unique, what precisely are the equivalents of the immune system in other living individuals (again, genomes, cells, groups, etc.)?