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- Doolittle, W.F. Biol Philos (2013) 28: 351. doi:10.1007/s10539-012-9358-7
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Our understanding of what microbes are and how they evolve has undergone many radical shifts since the late nineteenth century, when many still believed that bacteria could be spontaneously generated and most thought microbial “species” (if any) to be unstable and interchangeable in form and function (pleomorphic). By the late twentieth century, an ontology based on single cells and definable species with predictable properties, evolving like species of animals or plants, was widely accepted. Now, however, genomic and metagenomic data show that lateral gene transfer compromises this picture of stability and predictability, and refocuses our attention on multilineage communities. Treating such communities as unstable but identifiable evolving “individuals” makes us again pleomorphists, of a sort.