Peter Hammerstein

Institute for Theoretical Biology,
Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Germany

Bacteria playing Jekyll and Hyde in a mutualistic relationship

Smithsonian Image

The term mutualism usually refers to a mutually beneficial interaction between organisms of different species. This “plus-plus” condition refers to the ‘bottom line’ of each organism and can be satisfied even if the members of one species inflict immense harm on members of the other and are far from being anything like true cooperators. This is nicely illustrated by the relation-ship between intracellular bacteria, Wolbachia, and their arthropod hosts. The dramatic selfish manipulations that we see in allegedly mutualistic Wolbachia-host relationships raise the following question: How useful is the concept of mutualism and to what extent does it mislead us to see more cooperation in nature than there really is. The current academic discourse on Wolbachia-host mutualism demonstrates the importance of this question - a question also of great relevance to the debate on so called holobiomes. I argue that a simple holobiome perspective on the microbiome suffers, in particular, from ignoring the ‘Jekyll-and-Hyde’ patterns of symbiont action.

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