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Can Microbial Communities Regenerate?

Uniting Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

By investigating a simple question, a philosopher of science and a molecular biologist offer an accessible understanding of microbial communities and a motivating theory for future research in community ecology.
Microorganisms, such as bacteria, are important determinants of health at the individual, ecosystem, and global levels. And yet many aspects of modern life, from the overuse of antibiotics to chemical spills and climate change, can have devastating, lasting impacts on the communities formed by microorganisms. Drawing on the latest scientific research and real-life examples such as attempts to reengineer these communities through microbial transplantation, the construction of synthetic communities of microorganisms, and the use of probiotics, this book explores how and why communities of microorganisms respond to disturbance, and what might lead to failure. It also unpacks related and interwoven philosophical questions: What is an organism? Can a community evolve by natural selection? How can we make sense of function and purpose in the natural world? How should we think about regeneration as a phenomenon that occurs at multiple biological scales? Provocative and nuanced, this primer offers an accessible conceptual and theoretical understanding of regeneration and evolution at the community level that will be essential across disciplines including philosophy of biology, conservation biology, microbiomics, medicine, evolutionary biology, and ecology.


"Inkpen and Doolittle focus on microbiological regeneration—how multiple microbiological entities come together, interact, and regenerate after a disruption. The book lays out the definitions, concepts, and theoretical frameworks for microbial regeneration using both ecology and evolution to arrive at the current scientific understanding of this complex concept. . . . Students in these scientific disciplines would benefit from the cross-disciplinary approach."

Library Journal

"To address the issue of regeneration broadly and its framing in contemporary research... Inkpen and Doolittle make a compelling case for a familiar proposal that builds on the hard core of evolutionary theory. Indeed, the book leverages both empirical examples and philosophical analyses to complete this task, all while having the ambitious goal of informing a diverse target audience of laypeople, scientists, and policymakers."


“This question is not just academic, but informs critical debates regarding medical interventions, evolution, and conservation. A must-read for evolutionary biologists, historians and philosophers of science, and a wider audience interested in the microbiome.”

Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University and the Marine Biological Laboratory

“The majority of the literature on microbial communities is descriptive, rather than conceptual or theoretical. This book is quite unique, and valuable, in providing a general cross-disciplinary approach to one aspect of microbial community ecology, potentially encouraging more rational, thoughtful, and critical research on this very important topic.”

JI Prosser OBE FRS FRSE FRSB FAAM, University of Aberdeen

“Going beyond definition wrangling, Inkpen and Doolittle synthesize a wide range of topics to put forward a compelling conclusion. Their book balances technicality and clarity in a way that is exceedingly hard to obtain.”

Derek Skillings, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Table of Contents

1 Regeneration
2 Ecology
3 Evolution
4 Interactors
5 Engineering
Further Reading

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