Conserving the holobiont

Alexandra J. R. Carthey*, Daniel T. Blumstein, Rachael V. Gallagher, Sasha G. Tetu, Michael R. Gillings

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    24 Citations (Scopus)


    1. Organismal biology has undergone a dramatic paradigm shift in the last decade. The realization that host cells and genes are outnumbered by symbiotic microbial cells and their genes has forced us to rethink our focus on ‘individuals’. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the ecology and biology of animals and plants are intimately connected with their microbial partners. In the context of conserving functioning species, such revelatory insights beg the question—what exactly should we be trying to conserve? 

    2. Here, we review how an understanding of host–microbe interactions can benefit conservation biology. We propose a way forward for conservation biologists, to gather evidence of the potential effects of changes to plant and animal microbiomes, and to incorporate the holobiont concept into applied conservation practice. 

    3. In humans, microbes influence physiology, health, behaviour and psychology. In animals and plants, microbes similarly influence critically important components of health, communication and (in animals) behaviour. Together, the animal or plant and all of its associated micro-organisms are termed the holobiont. 

    4. At the same time, humans are now the strongest evolutionary force on the planet, causing global change at unprecedented scale. We know that microbial diversity in humans has been compromised in urban societies, with a growing list of consequences for health and function. While we still have limited evidence for similar effects in plants and animals, anthropogenic factors that affect diversity are also likely to affect animal and plant microbiomes, with similar associated effects on host function and health. 

    5. Microbiome research is still in its relative infancy, particularly in its application to plants and animals, yet the tools are becoming more widely available and affordable. Forward-looking conservation biologists could harness such tools and apply them to the study of plant and animal microbiomes with the goal of understanding which microbiota might be required to ensure future viability of conserved host populations. 

    6. For now, the precautionary principle applies. We suggest that, to meaningfully and effectively conserve a species, we must also consider how to conserve the bacteria, viruses, fungi and other symbionts intimately associated with that macro-organism. 

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    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)764-776
    Number of pages13
    JournalFunctional Ecology
    Issue number4
    Early online date4 Dec 2019
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


    • animal behaviour
    • captive breeding
    • conservation
    • genomic diversity
    • hologenome
    • microbiome
    • phyllosphere
    • seed banking


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