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Contextual organismality: Beyond pattern to process in the emergence of organisms

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Biologists have taken the concept of organism largely for granted. However, advances in the study of chimerism, symbiosis, bacterial-eukaryote associations, and microbial behavior have prompted a redefinition of organisms as biological entities exhibiting low conflict and high cooperation among their parts. This expanded view identifies organisms in evolutionary time. However, the ecological processes, mechanisms, and traits that drive the formation of organisms remain poorly understood. Recognizing that organismality can be context dependent, we advocate elucidating the ecological contexts under which entities do or do not act as organisms. Here we develop a "contextual organismality" framework and provide examples of entities, such as honey bee colonies, tumors, and bacterial swarms, that can act as organisms under specific life history, resource, or other ecological circumstances. We suggest that context dependence may be a stepping stone to the development of increased organismal unification, as the most integrated biological entities generally show little context dependence. Recognizing that organismality is contextual can identify common patterns and testable hypotheses across different entities. The contextual organismality framework can illuminate timeless as well as pressing issues in biology, including topics as disparate as cancer emergence, genomic conflict, evolution of symbiosis, and the role of the microbiota in impacting host phenotype.

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