The human body carries vast communities of microbes that provide many benefits. Our microbiome is complex and challenging to understand, but evolutionary theory provides a universal framework with which to analyse its biology and health impacts. Here we argue that to understand a given microbiome feature, such as colonization resistance, host nutrition or immune development, we must consider how hosts and symbionts evolve. Symbionts commonly evolve to compete within the host ecosystem, while hosts evolve to keep the ecosystem on a leash. We suggest that the health benefits of the microbiome should be understood, and studied, as an interplay between microbial competition and host control.
The human microbiome is a tension between microbes evolving to compete within the host ecosystem, and hosts trying to keep them under control.