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Division of labour in microorganisms: an evolutionary perspective


The division of labour, whereby individuals within a group specialize in certain tasks, has long been appreciated as central to the evolution of complex biological societies. In recent years, several examples of division of labour in microorganisms have arisen, which suggests that this strategy may also be important in microbial species. In this Opinion article, we explore the set of conditions that define division of labour and propose that cooperation between different phenotypes is a defining feature of division of labour. Furthermore, we discuss how clarifying what constitutes division of labour highlights key evolutionary questions, including what form division of labour takes and why it is favoured by natural selection.

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Figure 1: Division of labour.
Figure 2: Why divide labour?
Figure 3: How to divide?


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The authors thank K. Boomsma, A. P. Escudero, K. Foster, A. Gardner, M. Ghoul, J. Gore, A. Griffin, R. May, J. Strassmann, D. Unterweger and J. van Gestel for very useful discussions. The authors also thank M. Ackermann, R. May, R. Michod and J.-W. Veening for kindly providing images. G.A.C was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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Correspondence to Stuart A. West.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary information S1 (box)

Intentional Language and Adaptation (DOC 40 kb)

Supplementary information S2 (box)

The Mutation Test (DOC 25 kb)

Supplementary information S3 (box)

Different Types of Division (DOC 30 kb)

Supplementary information S4 (box)

Graphing Efficiency Benefits (DOC 27 kb)

Supplementary information S5 (box)

Can You Get Division of Labour Between Species? (DOC 44 kb)

Supplementary information S6 (box)

Variation in Mechanism Within Species (DOC 29 kb)

Supplementary information S7 (box)

Selection Versus Adaptation (DOC 28 kb)

Supplementary information S8 (box)

Can Bet-Hedging be Cooperative? (DOC 28 kb)

Supplementary information S9 (box)

Can You Get Division of Labour With Spiteful Traits? (DOC 30 kb)

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West, S., Cooper, G. Division of labour in microorganisms: an evolutionary perspective. Nat Rev Microbiol 14, 716–723 (2016).

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