All animals and plants establish symbiotic relationships with microorganisms; often the combined genetic information of the diverse microbiota exceeds that of the host. How the genetic wealth of the microbiota affects all aspects of the holobiont's (host plus all of its associated microorganisms) fitness (adaptation, survival, development, growth and reproduction) and evolution is reviewed, using selected coral, insect, squid, plant, and human/mouse published experimental results. The data are discussed within the framework of the hologenome theory of evolution, which demonstrates that changes in environmental parameters, for example, diet, can cause rapid changes in the diverse microbiota, which not only can benefit the holobiont in the short term but also can be transmitted to offspring and lead to long lasting cooperations. As acquired characteristics (microbes) are heritable, consideration of the holobiont as a unit of selection in evolution leads to neo-Lamarckian principles within a Darwinian framework. The potential application of these principles can be seen in the growing fields of prebiotics and probiotics. Birth Defects Research (Part C) 93:56–66, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.