The holobiont self: understanding immunity in context

Abstract

Both concepts of the holobiont and the immune system are at the heart of an ongoing scientific and philosophical examination concerning questions of the organism’s individuality and identity as well as the relations between organisms and their environment. Examining the holobiont, the question of boundaries and individuality is challenging because it is both an assemblage of organisms with physiological cohesive aspects. I discuss the concept of immunity and the immune system function from the holobiont perspective. Because of the host-microbial close relations of codependence and interdependence, the holobiont is more often than not confused with the host, as the host is the domain in which this entity exists. I discuss the holobiont unique ecological characteristics of microbial assemblages connected to a host in a network of interactions in which the host is one of the organisms in the community but also its landscape. Therefore, I suggest viewing the holobiont as a host-ecosystem and discuss the implication of such a view on the concept of immunity and the meaning of protection. Furthermore, I show that viewing the holobiont as a host ecosystem opens the possibility of using the same ecological definition of boundaries and immunity dealing with an ecological system. Thus, the holobiont’s boundaries and immunity are defined by the persistence of its complex system of interactions integrating existing and new interactions. This way of thinking presents a notion of immunity that materializes as the result of the complex interdependence relations between the different organisms composing the holobiont similar to that of an ecosystem. Taking this view further, I discuss the notion of immunogenicity that is ontologically heterogeneous with various causal explanations of the processes of tolerance and targeted immune response. Finally, I discuss the possible conceptualization of already existing and new biomedical practices.

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Tamar Schneider
Tel Aviv University

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