Host-microbiome coevolution can promote cooperation in a rock-paper-scissors dynamics

Ohad Lewin-Epstein, Lilach Hadany

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cooperation is a fundamental behaviour observed in all forms of life. The evolution of cooperation has been widely studied, but almost all theories focused on the cooperating individual and its genes. We suggest a different approach, taking into account the microbes carried by the interacting individuals. Accumulating evidence reveals that microbes can affect their host's well-being and behaviour, yet hosts can evolve mechanisms to resist the manipulations of their microbes. We thus propose that coevolution of microbes with their hosts may favour microbes that induce their host to cooperate. Using computational modelling, we show that microbe-induced cooperation can evolve and be maintained in a wide range of conditions, including when facing hosts' resistance to the microbial effect. We find that host-microbe coevolution leads the population to a rock-paper-scissors dynamics that enables maintenance of cooperation in a polymorphic state. Our results suggest a mechanism for the evolution and maintenance of cooperation that may be relevant to a wide variety of organisms, including cases that are difficult to explain by current theories. This study provides a new perspective on the coevolution of hosts and their microbiome, emphasizing the potential role of microbes in shaping their host's behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20192754
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1920
StatePublished - 12 Feb 2020


  • Altruism
  • Coevolution
  • Cooperation
  • Evolution
  • Host-microbiome
  • Mathematical model


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