Role of microorganisms in the evolution of animals and plants: The hologenome theory of evolution

Ilana Zilber-Rosenberg, Eugene Rosenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


We present here the hologenome theory of evolution, which considers the holobiont (the animal or plant with all of its associated microorganisms) as a unit of selection in evolution. The hologenome is defined as the sum of the genetic information of the host and its microbiota. The theory is based on four generalizations: (1) All animals and plants establish symbiotic relationships with microorganisms. (2) Symbiotic microorganisms are transmitted between generations. (3) The association between host and symbionts affects the fitness of the holobiont within its environment. (4) Variation in the hologenome can be brought about by changes in either the host or the microbiota genomes; under environmental stress, the symbiotic microbial community can change rapidly. These points taken together suggest that the genetic wealth of diverse microbial symbionts can play an important role both in adaptation and in evolution of higher organisms. During periods of rapid changes in the environment, the diverse microbial symbiont community can aid the holobiont in surviving, multiplying and buying the time necessary for the host genome to evolve. The distinguishing feature of the hologenome theory is that it considers all of the diverse microbiota associated with the animal or the plant as part of the evolving holobiont. Thus, the hologenome theory fits within the framework of the 'superorganism' proposed by Wilson and Sober.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)723-735
Number of pages13
JournalFEMS Microbiology Reviews
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 2008


  • Evolution
  • Holobiont
  • Hologenome theory
  • Microbial symbiont
  • Superorganism
  • Symbiosis


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