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“…what keeps competition from destroying the common good that could be created by cooperating?”  Egbert Leigh

We study why some groups infight while others cooperate to achieve common goals. Cooperation is all around us. Genes have come together in genomes, cells work together in microbial groups and multicellular organisms, and diverse species work together in host-symbiont systems like the mammalian microbiome. However, cooperation represents one of the major challenges in evolutionary biology because Darwin’s theory of natural selection makes it clear that competition and selfishness are often the best strategies for success. Why then do many organisms help each other? For example, why do honeybee workers work rather than lay their own eggs? And why do so few symbionts harm their host?

One important answer is that cooperation often involves relatives: the cells in your body are genetically identical so there is no conflict over the jobs that they do, or whose genes are passed on to the next generation. However, many organisms live in groups where individuals are not genetically identical and here  one expects the potential for both cooperative and competitive interactions. This includes many animal groups, such as humans and social insects, which are the focus of much research in sociobiology. However, another major group of organisms that come together in dense mixtures of genetic relatives and unrelated competitors are the microbes, which we focus on. Moreover, microbes come together and cooperate with hosts in systems like the mammalian microbiome, which is the key focus of the lab.