Resource conflict and cooperation between human host and gut microbiota: implications for nutrition and health

Helen Wasielewski, Joe Alcock, C Athena Aktipis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Diet has been known to play an important role in human health since at least the time period of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. In the last decade, research has revealed that microorganisms inhabiting the digestive tract, known as the gut microbiota, are critical factors in human health. This paper draws on concepts of cooperation and conflict from ecology and evolutionary biology to make predictions about host–microbiota interactions involving nutrients. To optimally extract energy from some resources (e.g., fiber), hosts require cooperation from microbes. Other nutrients can be utilized by both hosts and microbes (e.g., simple sugars, iron) in their ingested form, which may lead to greater conflict over these resources. This framework predicts that some negative health effects of foods are driven by the direct effects of these foods on human physiology and by indirect effects resulting from microbiome–host competition and conflict (e.g., increased invasiveness and inflammation). Similarly, beneficial effects of some foods on host health may be enhanced by resource sharing and other cooperative behaviors between host and microbes that may downregulate inflammation and virulence. Given that some foods cultivate cooperation between hosts and microbes while others agitate conflict, host–microbe interactions may be novel targets for interventions aimed at improving nutrition and human health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20-28
Number of pages9
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2016


  • Western diet
  • conflict
  • cooperation
  • evolution
  • microbial ecology
  • microbiome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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