The hologenome concept of evolution: a philosophical and biological study

Dissertation, University of Exeter (2019)
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Abstract
The hologenome concept of evolution is a hypothesis about the evolution of animals and plants. It asserts that the evolution of animals and plants was partially triggered by their interactions with their symbiotic microbiomes. In that vein, the hologenome concept posits that the holobiont (animal host + symbionts of the microbiome) is a unit of selection. The hologenome concept has been severely criticized on the basis that selection on holobionts would only be possible if there were a tight transgenerational host-genotype-to-symbiont-genotype connection. As our current evidence suggests that this is not the case for most of the symbiont species that compose the microbiome of animals and plants, the opportunity for holobiont selection is very low in relation to the opportunity for selection on each of the species that compose the host microbiome. Therefore, holobiont selection will always be disrupted ‘from below’, by selection on each of the species that compose the microbiome. This thesis constitutes a conceptual effort to defend philosophically the hologenome concept. I argue that the criticism according to which holobiont selection requires tight transgenerational host-genotype-to-symbiont-genotype connection is grounded on a metaphysical view of the world according to which the biological hierarchy needs to be nested, such that each new level of selection includes every entity from below. Applied to hologenomes, it entails that the hologenome is a collection of genomes, and selection of hologenomes is assumed to entail cospeciation of the host with the species that constitute its microbiome. Against that interpretation, I propose the ‘stability of traits’ account, according to which hologenome evolution is the result of the action of natural selection in a non-nested hierarchical world. In that vein, hologenome evolution does not entail cospeciation, and thus it does not require tight transgenerational host-genotype-to-symbiont-genotype connection. By embracing a multilevel selection perspective, I argue that hologenome evolution results from the simultaneous action of natural selection on each of the lineages that compose the microbiome, and on the assemblage composed by the host genome plus the functional traits of its microbiome. Hologenome selection occurs when the evolution of the traits of the microbiome result from their effects on the fitness of the host, and it can take the form of multilevel selection 1, or multilevel selection 2. In both cases, hologenome selection entails the evolution of microbiome traits, as well as evolution of the host genome, rather than cospeciation of lineages.
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