Holobionts and the ecology of organisms: Multi-species communities or integrated individuals?

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Biology & Philosophy, ISSN: 0169-3867, Vol: 31, Issue: 6, Page: 875-892

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Derek Skillings
Springer Nature
Arts and Humanities, Agricultural and Biological Sciences
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It is now widely accepted that microorganisms play many important roles in the lives of plants and animals. Every macroorganism has been shaped in some way by microorganisms. The recognition of the ubiquity and importance of microorganisms has led some to argue for a revolution in how we understand biological individuality and the primary units of natural selection. The term “holobiont” was introduced as a name for the biological unit made up by a host and all of its associated microorganisms, and much of this new debate about biological individuality has focused on whether holobionts are integrated individuals or communities. In this paper, I show how parts of the holobiont can span both characterizations. I argue that most holobionts share more affinities with communities than they do with organisms, and that, except for maybe in rare cases, holobionts do not meet the criteria for being organisms, evolutionary individuals, or units of selection.

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