The ecology and evolution of social behavior in microbes

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Cooperation has been studied extensively across the tree of life, from eusociality in insects to social behavior in humans, but it is only recently that a social dimension has been recognized and extensively explored for microbes. Research into microbial cooperation has accelerated dramatically and microbes have become a favorite system because of their fast evolution, their convenience as lab study systems and the opportunity for molecular investigations. However, the study of microbes also poses significant challenges, such as a lack of knowledge and an inaccessibility of the ecological context (used here to include both the abiotic and the biotic environment) under which the trait deemed cooperative has evolved and is maintained. I review the experimental and theoretical evidence in support of the limitations of the study of social behavior in microbes in the absence of an ecological context. I discuss both the need and the opportunities for experimental investigations that can inform a theoretical framework able to reframe the general questions of social behavior in a clear ecological context and to account for eco-evolutionary feedback.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)18-24
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Insect Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology


  • Cooperation
  • Eco-evolutionary dynamics
  • Sociobiology


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