Evolution on the bright side of life: microorganisms and the evolution of mutualism.
Mutualistic interactions, where two interacting species have a net beneficial effect on each other's fitness, play a crucial role in the survival and evolution of many species. Despite substantial empirical and theoretical work in past decades, the impact of these interactions on natural selection is not fully understood. In addition, mutualisms between microorganisms have been largely ignored, even though they are ecologically important and can be used as tools to bridge the gap between theory and empirical work. Here, I describe two problems with our current understanding of natural selection in mutualism and highlight the properties of microbial mutualisms that could help solve them. One problem is that bias and methodological problems have limited our understanding of the variety of mechanisms by which species may adapt to mutualism. Another problem is that it is rare for experiments testing coevolution in mutualism to address whether each species has adapted to evolutionary changes in its partner. These problems can be addressed with genome resequencing and time-shift experiments, techniques that are easier to perform in microorganisms. In addition, microbial mutualisms may inspire novel insights and hypotheses about natural selection in mutualism.