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The hologenome concept: we need to incorporate function


Are we in the midst of a paradigm change in biology and have animals and plants lost their individuality, i.e., are even so-called ‘typical’ organisms no longer organisms in their own right? Is the study of the holobiont—host plus its symbiotic microorganisms—no longer optional, but rather an obligatory path that must be taken for a comprehensive understanding of the ecology and evolution of the individual components that make up a holobiont? Or are associated microbes merely a component of their host’s environment, and the holobiont concept is just a beautiful idea that does not add much or anything to our understanding of evolution? This article explores different aspects of the concept of the holobiont. We focus on the aspect of functional integration, a central holobiont property, which is only rarely considered thoroughly. We conclude that the holobiont comes in degrees, i.e., we regard the property of being a holobiont as a continuous trait that we term holobiontness, and that holobiontness is differentiated in several dimensions. Although the holobiont represents yet another level of selection (different from classical individual or group selection because it acts on a system that is composed of multiple species), it depends on the grade of functional integration whether or not the holobiont concept helps to cast light on the various degrees of interactions between symbiotic partners.

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Support by the Münster Graduate School of Evolution (MGSE) to DF, KF, and GL is gratefully acknowledged. This work was supported by Santander Universities with a fellowship to JG for his stay (19.05-15.08.2014) in the Evolution Think Tank of the MGSE. This manuscript was conceived during a workshop on Multilevel Selection at the MGSE and owes much to the inspiring discussions with Seth Bordenstein who was one of the invited participants.

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Correspondence to Francesco Catania or Jürgen Gadau.

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Catania, F., Krohs, U., Chittò, M. et al. The hologenome concept: we need to incorporate function. Theory Biosci. 136, 89–98 (2017).

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  • Holobiont
  • Hologenome
  • Symbiosis
  • Evolution
  • Function
  • Functional integration