Many species interactions are visible – a bee visits a flower, a lion chases a gazelle, a mistletoe perches atop a tree. However, a whole host of other interactions remain invisible. These interactions may include microbes or other organisms that are too small to see, or the interactions may occur belowground, hidden from sight. Plants engage in extensive belowground interactions with other plants, soil arthropods, microbes, and fungi. Plants also serve as a link between aboveground and belowground subsystems, an area that is currently receiving much attention in ecological research.
I don’t spend much time reading Nature Medicine, and I imagine most ecologists are similar to me in that regard. However, I ran across an article from that journal that’s gotten a lot of play in the popular media, and it got me thinking about some concepts from ecology and evolutionary biology, and their relevance to disease treatment.
First, let’s take a step back. You have trillions of microbes living and reproducing inside of you, right now. This may not surprise you, but if it does, don’t worry – your life would be much less pleasant if they were all wiped out. In particular, your digestive system is teeming with microbes that help you digest and process food. These microbes, of course, have genes that determine their traits and how well they function as digestive assistants. They also have very short lifespans, so the microbial communities inside of you can evolve in response to your diet and other activities. With that out of the way, let’s move on to the study.