Animal development in the microbial world: Re-thinking the conceptual framework

Curr Top Dev Biol. 2021;141:399-427. doi: 10.1016/bs.ctdb.2020.11.007. Epub 2021 Jan 29.


Animals have evolved within the framework of the microbes and are constantly exposed to diverse microbiota. This dominance of the microbial world is forcing all fields of biology to question some of their most basic premises, with developmental biology being no exception. While animals under laboratory conditions can develop and live without microbes, they are far from normal, and would not survive under natural conditions, where their fitness would be strongly compromised. Since much of the undescribed biodiversity on Earth is microbial, any consideration of animal development in the absence of the recognition of microbes will be incomplete. Here, we show that animal development may never have been autonomous, rather it requires transient or persistent interactions with the microbial world. We propose that to formulate a comprehensive understanding of embryogenesis and post-embryonic development, we must recognize that symbiotic microbes provide important developmental signals and contribute in significant ways to phenotype production. This offers limitless opportunities for the field of developmental biology to expand.

Keywords: Development; Embryogenesis; Evolution; Microbiota; Symbiosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / cytology
  • Biofilms
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Eukaryota / cytology*
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome
  • Gastrulation / physiology*
  • Immune System / microbiology
  • Male
  • Ruminants / microbiology
  • Symbiosis*