Social evolution theory for microorganisms.
West SA., Griffin AS., Gardner A., Diggle SP.
Microorganisms communicate and cooperate to perform a wide range of multicellular behaviours, such as dispersal, nutrient acquisition, biofilm formation and quorum sensing. Microbiologists are rapidly gaining a greater understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in these behaviours, and the underlying genetic regulation. Such behaviours are also interesting from the perspective of social evolution - why do microorganisms engage in these behaviours given that cooperative individuals can be exploited by selfish cheaters, who gain the benefit of cooperation without paying their share of the cost? There is great potential for interdisciplinary research in this fledgling field of sociomicrobiology, but a limiting factor is the lack of effective communication of social evolution theory to microbiologists. Here, we provide a conceptual overview of the different mechanisms through which cooperative behaviours can be stabilized, emphasizing the aspects most relevant to microorganisms, the novel problems that microorganisms pose and the new insights that can be gained from applying evolutionary theory to microorganisms.