Quarterly Review of Biology 94 (2):149-175 (2019)

Nicolae Morar
University of Oregon
It has become increasingly clear that there is a vast array of microorganisms on and in the human body, known collectively as the human microbiome. Our microbiomes are extraordinarily complex, and this complexity has been linked to human health and well-being. Given the complexity and importance of our microbiomes, we struggle with how to think about them. There is a long list of competing metaphors that we use to refer to our microbiomes, including as an “organ” containing our “second genome,” as a “symbiont” in the human “holobiont,” and as an ecological “community” in the human “ecosystem,” among others. Each of these makes different assumptions about the fundamental biology of the human-microbe system, with important implications for how we choose to study microbiomes, and the therapies we envision for correcting microbiome-linked disorders. We believe that it is time to move beyond metaphors, and we propose a scientifically pluralist approach that focuses on characterizing fundamental biological properties of microbiomes such as heritability, transmission mode, rates of dispersal rates, and strength of local selection. Such an approach will allow us to break out of the confines of narrow conceptual frameworks, and to guide the exploration of our complexity as chimeric beings.
Keywords human microbiome, microbial ecology and evolution, host-microbe interactions, philosophy of biology, scientific pluralism
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