The Emergence of Holobionts: A Paradigm Shift in Biology Unveiled by The Economist

London, 26 June - In a groundbreaking article published by The Economist, the concept of "holobionts" emerges as a paradigm shift in the field of biology, redefining the way scientists perceive the interconnectedness of life forms. Holobionts, which are meta-organisms composed of animals, plants, and the intricate microbiota that inhabit and thrive within them, have captured the attention of biologists worldwide.

The article delves into the profound philosophical question of the number of cells present in a human being. While the answer typically revolves around 37 trillion cells, encompassing those derived from the fertilized egg, a deeper exploration reveals a more astonishing figure. When considering the diverse array of archaean, bacterial, fungal, and protist cells inhabiting the human body's various surfaces and crevices, the cell count approximately doubles. Although constituting only about 0.3% of a person's body weight, these microorganisms are incredibly abundant due to their relatively smaller size compared to human cells.

The existence of the human microbiome is not a new revelation. However, the understanding that symbiosis, the intimate and collaborative coexistence of different species, is a fundamental aspect of life has propelled biologists towards a paradigm shift. What began as a finite list of exceptional cases has now evolved into a comprehensive understanding that nearly all multicellular organisms, and even some single-celled organisms, host symbiotic relationships.

This emerging perspective urges scientists to discard the outdated notion of plants and animals merely "having a microbiome." Instead, the concept of holobionts emphasizes the inseparable unity of the host organism and its associated microbial communities. The symbiotic interactions within holobionts play crucial roles in various physiological processes, impacting health, development, and overall ecosystem dynamics.

As the scientific community embraces this paradigm shift, the implications are far-reaching. Researchers foresee a profound transformation in how they investigate and understand the intricate web of life. Exploring holobionts opens new avenues for studying complex biological systems, with potential implications for human health, ecology, and the environment.

The Economist's exploration of the idea of holobionts signifies an exciting chapter in biological research, shedding light on the intricate interplay between organisms and their microbiomes. This revolutionary perspective promises to unravel the mysteries of symbiosis and provide novel insights into the fundamental mechanisms of life itself.

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Aparajita Mohanty,

Centre manager

Prof. Matthew Fisher awarded NERC £1.4M project 2023-2026 which will be tied to the Leverhulme Cnetre for The Holobiont.

While emerging antimicrobial resistance is widely recognised in bacteria, the emergence of fungi that are resistant to antifungal chemicals is underappreciated yet is compromising our ability to grow blight-free crops and to treat serious human fungal diseases -therefore presenting a classic One Health dilemma. The core focus of our project is Aspergillus species, common environmental moulds to which all humans are exposed due to their ubiquitous presence in the air. Of note, A. fumigatus affects millions of susceptible individuals worldwide (including those with COVID-19) and is increasingly causing disease that is resistant to the frontline azole antifungal drugs that are used to treat it. Crucially, this is the same class of chemicals that are used by farmers as fungicides, which is driving a surge in azole-resistant A. fumigatus as this mould comes under selection by these chemicals in its natural environment. However, we currently have very little understanding of the landscape-scale pathways that lead to fungicide chemical residues accumulating to the concentrations that select for, and amplify, resistance in moulds. The research project will twin surveillance and genomic approaches to track and trace hotspots of mould resistance in the environment in order to better understand how to control them. Ultimately, by dissecting the extended (unintentional) consequence of fungicide use as these chemicals drive the evolution of fungal antimicrobial resistance, our project will address this problem within its greater 'One Health' context. Our approach is urgently needed to develop the knowledge-base that is needed to understand the current risk as well as to mitigate the selection-pressure driving future emergence of fungal antimicrobial resistance in the environment