Compartmentalization drives the evolution of symbiotic cooperation

Guillaume Chomicki, Gijsbert D.A. Werner, Stuart A. West, E. Toby Kiers

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Across the tree of life, hosts have evolved mechanisms to control and mediate interactions with symbiotic partners. We suggest that the evolution of physical structures that allow hosts to spatially separate symbionts, termed compartmentalization, is a common mechanism used by hosts. Such compartmentalization allows hosts to: (i) isolate symbionts and control their reproduction; (ii) reward cooperative symbionts and punish or stop interactions with non-cooperative symbionts; and (iii) reduce direct conflict among different symbionts strains in a single host. Compartmentalization has allowed hosts to increase the benefits that they obtain from symbiotic partners across a diversity of interactions, including legumes and rhizobia, plants and fungi, squid and Vibrio, insects and nutrient provisioning bacteria, plants and insects, and the human microbiome. In cases where compartmentalization has not evolved, we ask why not. We argue that when partners interact in a competitive hierarchy, or when hosts engage in partnerships which are less costly, compartmentalization is less likely to evolve. We conclude that compartmentalization is key to understanding the evolution of symbiotic cooperation. This article is part of the theme issue 'The role of the microbiome in host evolution'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20190602
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences
Issue number1808
Early online date10 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sep 2020


  • compartmentalization
  • cooperation
  • mutualism
  • punishment
  • symbiosis


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