How Research on Microbiomes is Changing Biology: A Discussion on the Concept of the Organism

Foundations of Science 23 (4):603-620 (2018)
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Multicellular organisms contain numerous symbiotic microorganisms, collectively called microbiomes. Recently, microbiomic research has shown that these microorganisms are responsible for the proper functioning of many of the systems of multicellular organisms. This has inclined some scholars to argue that it is about time to reconceptualise the organism and to develop a concept that would place the greatest emphasis on the vital role of microorganisms in the life of plants and animals. We believe that, unfortunately, there is a problem with this suggestion, since there is no such thing as a universal concept of the organism which could constitute a basis for all biological sciences. Rather, the opposite is true: numerous alternative definitions exist. Therefore, comprehending how microbiomics is changing our understanding of organisms may be a very complex matter. In this paper we will demonstrate that this pluralism proves that claims about a change in our understanding of organisms can be treated as both true and untrue. Mainly, we assert that the existing concepts differ substantially, and that only some of them have to be reconsidered in order to incorporate the discoveries of microbiomics, while others are already flexible enough to do so. Taking into account the plurality of conceptualisations within different branches of modern biology, we will conduct our discussion using the developmental and the cooperation–conflict concepts of the organism. Then we will explain our results by referring to the recent philosophical debate on the nature of the concept of the organism within biology.

Author Profiles

Agnieszka Proszewska
Jagiellonian University
Adrian Stencel
Jagiellonian University


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