Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 379-404

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Towards a processual microbial ontology

  • Eric BaptesteAffiliated withUMR CNRS 7138, Université Pierre et Marie Curie Email author 
  • , John DupréAffiliated withESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis), University of Exeter


Standard microbial evolutionary ontology is organized according to a nested hierarchy of entities at various levels of biological organization. It typically detects and defines these entities in relation to the most stable aspects of evolutionary processes, by identifying lineages evolving by a process of vertical inheritance from an ancestral entity. However, recent advances in microbiology indicate that such an ontology has important limitations. The various dynamics detected within microbiological systems reveal that a focus on the most stable entities (or features of entities) over time inevitably underestimates the extent and nature of microbial diversity. These dynamics are not the outcome of the process of vertical descent alone. Other processes, often involving causal interactions between entities from distinct levels of biological organisation, or operating at different time scales, are responsible not only for the destabilisation of pre-existing entities, but also for the emergence and stabilisation of novel entities in the microbial world. In this article we consider microbial entities as more or less stabilised functional wholes, and sketch a network-based ontology that can represent a diverse set of processes including, for example, as well as phylogenetic relations, interactions that stabilise or destabilise the interacting entities, spatial relations, ecological connections, and genetic exchanges. We use this pluralistic framework for evaluating (i) the existing ontological assumptions in evolution (e.g. whether currently recognized entities are adequate for understanding the causes of change and stabilisation in the microbial world), and (ii) for identifying hidden ontological kinds, essentially invisible from within a more limited perspective. We propose to recognize additional classes of entities that provide new insights into the structure of the microbial world, namely “processually equivalent” entities, “processually versatile” entities, and “stabilized” entities.


Ontology Microbial evolution Process philosophy Tree of life Network