Recent empirical studies offer conflicting findings regarding the relation between host fitness and the composition of its microbiome, a conflict which we term ‘the microbial β- diversity conundrum’. The microbiome is crucial for host wellbeing and survival. Surprisingly, different healthy individuals’ microbiome compositions, even in the same population, often differ dramatically, contrary to the notion that a vital trait should be highly conserved. Moreover, gnotobiotic individuals exhibit highly deleterious phenotypes, supporting the view that the microbiome is paramount to host fitness. However, the introduction of almost arbitrarily selected microbiota into the system often achieves a significant rescue effect of the deleterious phenotypes. This is true even for microbiota from soil or phylogenetically distant host species, highlighting an apparent paradox. We suggest several solutions to the paradox using a computational framework, simulating the population dynamics of hosts and their microbiomes over multiple generations. The answers invoke factors such as host population size, the specific mode of microbial contribution to host fitness, and typical microbiome richness, offering solutions to the conundrum by highlighting scenarios where even when a host’s fitness is determined in full by its microbiome composition, this composition has little effect on the natural selection dynamics of the population.
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