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Trends Genet. 2007 Feb;23(2):74-80. Epub 2007 Jan 17.

What can microbial genetics teach sociobiology?

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Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University, Bauer Laboratory, 7 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


Progress in our understanding of sociobiology has occurred with little knowledge of the genetic mechanisms that underlie social traits. However, several recent studies have described microbial genes that affect social traits, thereby bringing genetics to sociobiology. A key finding is that simple genetic changes can have marked social consequences, and mutations that affect cheating and recognition behaviors have been discovered. The study of these mutants confirms a central theoretical prediction of social evolution: that genetic relatedness promotes cooperation. Microbial genetics also provides an important new perspective: that the genome-to-phenome mapping of social organisms might be organized to constrain the evolution of social cheaters. This constraint can occur both through pleiotropic genes that link cheating to a personal cost and through the existence of phoenix genes, which rescue cooperative systems from selfish and destructive strategies. These new insights show the power of studying microorganisms to improve our understanding of the evolution of cooperation.

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