Holobionts as Units of Selection and a Model of Their Population Dynamics and Evolution

Joan Roughgarden, Scott F. Gilbert, Eugene Rosenberg, Ilana Zilber-Rosenberg, Elisabeth A. Lloyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Holobionts, consisting of a host and diverse microbial symbionts, function as distinct biological entities anatomically, metabolically, immunologically, and developmentally. Symbionts can be transmitted from parent to offspring by a variety of vertical and horizontal methods. Holobionts can be considered levels of selection in evolution because they are well-defined interactors, replicators/reproducers, and manifestors of adaptation. An initial mathematical model is presented to help understand how holobionts evolve. The model offered combines the processes of horizontal symbiont transfer, within-host symbiont proliferation, vertical symbiont transmission, and holobiont selection. The model offers equations for the population dynamics and evolution of holobionts whose hologenomes differ in gene copy number, not in allelic or loci identity. The model may readily be extended to include variation among holobionts in the gene identities of both symbionts and host.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-65
Number of pages22
JournalBiological Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2018


  • Holobiont
  • Holobiont model
  • Hologenome
  • Level of selection
  • Microbiome
  • Microbiota
  • Symbiont


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