Evolution of division of labour in mutualistic symbiosis

Yu Uchiumi, Akira Sasaki

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1 Citation (Scopus)


Mutualistic symbiosis can be regarded as interspecific division of labour, which can improve the productivity of metabolites and services but deteriorate the ability to live without partners. Interestingly, even in environmentally acquired symbiosis, involved species often rely exclusively on the partners despite the lethal risk of missing partners. To examine this paradoxical evolution, we explored the coevolutionary dynamics in symbiotic species for the amount of investment in producing their essential metabolites, which symbiotic species can share. Our study has shown that, even if obtaining partners is difficult, 'perfect division of labour' (PDL) can be maintained evolutionarily, where each species perfectly specializes in producing one of the essential metabolites so that every member entirely depends on the others for survival, i.e. in exchange for losing the ability of living alone. Moreover, the coevolutionary dynamics shows multistability with other states including a state without any specialization. It can cause evolutionary hysteresis: once PDL has been achieved evolutionarily when obtaining partners was relatively easy, it is not reverted even if obtaining partners becomes difficult later. Our study suggests that obligate mutualism with a high degree of mutual specialization can evolve and be maintained easier than previously thought.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20200669
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1930
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • division of labour
  • evolution of specialist and generalist
  • horizontal transmission
  • mutualism
  • symbiosis


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