Cooperation between cells is a widespread phenomenon in nature, found across diverse systems ranging from microbial populations to multicellular organisms. For cooperation to evolve and be maintained within a population of cells, costs due to competition have to be outweighed by the benefits gained through cooperative actions. Because cooperation generally confers a cost to the cooperating cells, defector cells that do not cooperate but reap the benefits of cooperation can thrive and eventually drive the cooperating phenotypes to extinction. Here we summarize recent advances made in understanding how cooperation and multicellularity can evolve in microbial populations in the face of such conflicts and discuss parallels with cell populations within multicellular organisms.
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