Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 38 (4):834-846 (2007)
Metagenomics is an emerging microbial systems science that is based on the large-scale analysis of the DNA of microbial communities in their natural environments. Studies of metagenomes are revealing the vast scope of biodiversity in a wide range of environments, as well as new functional capacities of individual cells and communities, and the complex evolutionary relationships between them. Our examination of this science focuses on the ontological implications of these studies of metagenomes and metaorganisms, and what they mean for common sense and philosophical understandings of multicellularity, individuality and organism. We show how metagenomics requires us to think in different ways about what human beings are and what their relation to the microbial world is. Metagenomics could also transform the way in which evolutionary processes are understood, with the most basic relationship between cells from both similar and different organisms being far more cooperative and less antagonistic than is widely assumed. In addition to raising fundamental questions about biological ontology, metagenomics generates possibilities for powerful technologies addressed to issues of climate, health and conservation. We conclude with reflections about process-oriented versus entity-oriented analysis in light of current trends towards systems approaches
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