How and when the microbiome modulates host adaptation remains an evolutionary puzzle, despite evidence that the extended genetic repertoire of the microbiome can shape host phenotypes and fitness. One complicating factor is that the microbiome is often transmitted imperfectly across host generations, leading to questions about the degree to which the microbiome contributes to host adaptation. Here, using an evolutionary model, we demonstrate that decreasing vertical transmission fidelity can increase microbiome variation, and thus phenotypic variation, across hosts. When the most beneficial microbial genotypes change unpredictably from one generation to the next (for example, in variable environments), hosts can maximize fitness by increasing the microbiome variation among offspring, as this improves the chance of there being an offspring with the right microbial combination for the next generation. Imperfect vertical transmission can therefore be adaptive in varying environments. We characterize how selection on vertical transmission is shaped by environmental conditions, microbiome changes during host development and the contribution of other factors to trait variation. We illustrate how environmentally dependent microbial effects can favour intermediate transmission and set our results in the context of examples from natural systems. We also suggest research avenues to empirically test our predictions. Our model provides a basis to understand the evolutionary pathways that potentially led to the wide diversity of microbe transmission patterns found in nature.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics