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Immunity, DEvelopment and Microbiota: Understanding the Continuous Construction of Biological Identity

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - IDEM (Immunity, DEvelopment and Microbiota: Understanding the Continuous Construction of Biological Identity)

Reporting period: 2017-03-01 to 2018-08-31

The problem of biological identity (what counts as one individual organism, and what makes each individual organism the “same” though it constantly changes through time?) has a long history both in philosophy and in science. Recent data coming from immunology, microbiology and developmental biology may revolutionize our conception of the construction of biological identity through time, by showing that this construction depends crucially on environmental factors and, most importantly, on a constant dialogue with symbiotic microorganisms integrated into the organism (the “microbiota”).

This issue is of great interest for society, as recent work on the microbiota may lead us to re-think significantly our conception of what a human being is. The topic of the microbiota is also fascinating for anyone interested in building a fruitful dialogue between the biomedical sciences and the social sciences.

IDEM is a fundamentally interdisciplinary project at the crossroads of philosophy and biology. The main objectives of the project are:
(i) assessing from a conceptual and historical point of view the reality of the proclaimed “revolution of the microbiota” in today’s biology;
(ii) understanding the exact mechanisms by which developmental processes in organisms depend on microbial symbionts;
(iii) asking whether the role of the immune system (usually seen as a system that rejects genetically foreign elements from the body) in the maintenance of the organism needs to be reevaluated;
(iv) determining how traditional conceptions of biological individuality may be modified by current research on the microbiota.

Overall, this project is unique in providing a new understanding of the way living things are continuously constructed through time and interact with their biotic environment.
The in-depth examination of the four main objectives is naturally still ongoing, but the project has already been very successful so far. We have published a high number of papers: a total of 23 papers over 30 months, most of the time in high-impact science journals or in world-leading philosophy journals. Often, these papers were co-authored with scientists and/or medical doctors. We have organized many workshops and conferences, as well as very successful seminars on Philosophy & Biology and on the conceptual and philosophical aspects of current microbiota research. We have also contributed to create a dialogue between different researchers working on the microbiota. Furthermore, we have organized two international workshops (June 2016 and November 2017), which both gathered world-leading specialists of the microbiota, immunology, microbiology, ecology, and evolution. All are described in detail on our webpage: https://www.immuconcept.org/erc-idem/

One postdoctoral researcher of the project (Leonardo BICH) has been hired as a Full Professor in San Sebastian, Spain. We are confident that the other members of the project will also find a position in the near future.
"Our group is recognized as a world-leading group of philosophers of science working in close contact with science and medicine. We are indeed ""embedded"" in a biology and medicine lab (at the CNRS and Bordeaux hospital), and we participate intensively in all lab's activities. We bring our conceptual, theoretical, and philosophical insights into scientific projects, and contribute to the emergence of new experimental questions and investigations. Building on this expertise, we have launched a national and international network promoting what we have called ""Philosophy in Biology and Medicine"" (rather than the more classical philosophy ""of"" biology and medicine) (website: https://www.philinbiomed.org/). Very few groups in the world have reached this degree of tight connection between philosophy and science. Our work on the microbiota, the immune system, microbiology and other biological and medical aspects is often published in science journals and it is discussed by scientists; to that extent, it has the quite unique feature of contributing and making a difference to science itself.

The next steps of the project are to publish the results of our investigations on the important (if controversial) notion of a ""holobiont"", which will be done in both a special issue of a journal, and in a series of individual papers. We will also pay a lot of attention to how recent work on the microbiota obliges us to re-think entirely what an immune system is, and how it functions. This is related to a growing interest we have developed, over the course of this project, for two major emerging issues in biology, namely neuroimmunology (the interactions between the nervous and the immune systems, where the microbiota plays an important role), and oncoimmunology (the control of tumors by the immune system, where the microbiota also seems to play an important role, including from a therapeutic point of view).

In the remaining 30 months, we will organize at least two international workshops and a summer school. We are confident that the number of our publications will remain at a high rate, and that we will continue to invite and interact with leading philosophers of science and scientists."