Review

Social evolution theory for microorganisms

  • Nature Reviews Microbiology 4, 597607 (2006)
  • doi:10.1038/nrmicro1461
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Abstract

Microorganisms communicate and cooperate to perform a wide range of multicellular behaviours, such as dispersal, nutrient acquisition, biofilm formation and quorum sensing. Microbiologists are rapidly gaining a greater understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in these behaviours, and the underlying genetic regulation. Such behaviours are also interesting from the perspective of social evolution ? why do microorganisms engage in these behaviours given that cooperative individuals can be exploited by selfish cheaters, who gain the benefit of cooperation without paying their share of the cost? There is great potential for interdisciplinary research in this fledgling field of sociomicrobiology, but a limiting factor is the lack of effective communication of social evolution theory to microbiologists. Here, we provide a conceptual overview of the different mechanisms through which cooperative behaviours can be stabilized, emphasizing the aspects most relevant to microorganisms, the novel problems that microorganisms pose and the new insights that can be gained from applying evolutionary theory to microorganisms.

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Download references

Entrez Genome Project

  1. Actinomyces naeslundii

    • Burkholderia cepacia

      • Dictyostelium discoideum

        • Escherichia coli

          • Myxococcus xanthus

            • Pseudomonas aeurginosa

              • Staphylococcus aureus

                • Streptococcus pneumoniae

                  • Vibrio fischeri

                    Acknowledgements

                    We thank M. Camara, B. Evans, K. Foster, N. Mehdiabadi, S. Molin, A. Ross-Gillespie, J. Strassman and P. Williams for useful discussion and comments on the manuscript, and the Royal Society, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council (UK) for funding.

                    Author information

                    Affiliations

                    1. Institute of Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, King's Buildings, Edinburgh, EH9 3JT, UK.

                      • Stuart A. West
                      • , Ashleigh S. Griffin
                      •  & Andy Gardner
                    2. Departments of Biology, Mathematics and Statistics, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, K7L 3N6, Canada.

                      • Andy Gardner
                    3. Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, University Park, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK.

                      • Stephen P. Diggle

                    Authors

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                    2. Search for Ashleigh S. Griffin in:

                    3. Search for Andy Gardner in:

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                    Competing interests

                    The authors declare no competing financial interests.

                    Corresponding author

                    Correspondence to Stuart A. West.

                    Supplementary information

                    Glossary

                    Virulence

                    The damage caused to the host by a parasite or pathogen, measured as the decrease in host fitness.

                    Cheater

                    An individual who does not cooperate (or cooperates less than their fair share), but can potentially gain the benefit from others cooperating.

                    Cooperation

                    A behaviour that benefits another individual (the recipient) and which is maintained (at least partially) because of its beneficial effect on the recipient.

                    Tragedy of the commons

                    A situation when individuals would do better to cooperate, but cooperation is unstable because each individual gains by selfishly pursuing their own short-term interests.

                    Public goods

                    A resource that is costly to produce, and provides a benefit to all the individuals in the local group or population.

                    Signal

                    Something that alters the behaviour of another individual, which evolved because of that effect, and which is effective because the receiver's response has also evolved.

                    Actor

                    A focal individual who performs a behaviour.

                    Direct fitness

                    The component of fitness gained through reproduction.

                    Repression of competiton

                    When the selfish advantage of cheats is removed.

                    Altruistic

                    A behaviour that increases another individual's fitness at a cost to one's own.

                    Kin selection

                    A process by which traits are favoured because of their beneficial effects on the fitness of relatives.

                    Indirect fitness

                    The component of fitness gained from aiding the reproduction of non-descendant relatives.

                    Hamilton's Rule

                    A condition (rb − c > 0) that predicts when a trait is favoured by kin selection, where c is the cost to the actor of performing the behaviour, b is the benefit to the individual who the behaviour is directed towards, and r is the genetic relatedness between those individuals.

                    Relatedness

                    A measure of genetic similarity.

                    Kin discrimination

                    When behaviours are directed towards individuals depending on their relatedness to the actor.

                    Cue

                    Something that can be used by an individual as a guide for future action.

                    Spiteful

                    A behaviour that decreases another individual's fitness at a cost to one's own.

                    Recipient

                    An individual who is affected by the behaviour of the actor.

                    Manipulate

                    When one behaviour alters the behaviour of another individual, usually to the benefit of the actor and to the cost of the other individual.