Our research focuses on symbiotic associations between animals and microbes. We utilize a cross-disciplinary approach incorporating ecological, evolutionary, genomic, and microbiological approaches to examine how microbes shape the biology of higher organisms. Our main study system is the quadripartite association between fungus-growing ants, their fungal cultivars, mutualistic bacteria, and specialized garden pathogens.
Microbiology 450: Diversity, Ecology, and Evolution of Microorganisms
Some lineages of ants, termites, and beetles independently evolved a symbiotic association with lignocellulolytic fungi cultivated for food, in a lifestyle known as fungiculture. Fungus-growing insects' symbiosis also hosts a bacterial community thought to integrate their physiology. Similarities in taxonomic composition support the microbiota of fungus-growing insects as convergent, despite differences in fungus-rearing by these insects. Here, by comparing fungus-growing insects to several hosts ranging diverse dietary patterns, we investigate whether the microbiota taxonomic and functional profiles are characteristic of the fungiculture environment. Compared to other hosts, the microbiota associated with fungus-growing insects presents a distinctive taxonomic profile, dominated by Gammaproteobacteria at class level and by Pseudomonas at genera level. Even with a functional profile presenting similarities with the gut microbiota of herbivorous and omnivorous hosts, some differentially abundant features codified by the microbiota of fungus-growing insects suggest these communities occupying microhabitats that are characteristic of fungiculture. These features include metabolic pathways involved in lignocellulose breakdown, detoxification of plant secondary metabolites, metabolism of simple sugars, fungal cell wall deconstruction, biofilm formation, antimicrobials biosynthesis, and metabolism of diverse nutrients. Our results suggest that the microbiota could be functionally adapted to the fungiculture environment, codifying metabolic pathways potentially relevant to the fungus-growing insects' ecosystems functioning.
The pollen stores of bumble bees host diverse microbiota that influence overall colony fitness. Yet, the taxonomic identity of these symbiotic microbes is relatively unknown. In this descriptive study, we characterized the microbial community of pollen provisions within captive-bred bumble bee hives obtained from two commercial suppliers located in North America. Findings from 16S rRNA and ITS gene-based analyses revealed that pollen provisions from the captive-bred hives shared several microbial taxa that have been previously detected among wild populations. While diverse microbes across phyla Firmicutes, Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Actinobacteria, and Ascomycota were detected in all commercial hives, significant differences were detected at finer-scale taxonomic resolution based on the supplier source. The causative agent of chalkbrood disease in honey bees, , was detected in all hives obtained from one supplier source, although none of the hives showed symptoms of infection. The shared core microbiota across both commercial supplier sources consisted of two ubiquitous bee-associated groups, and clade yeasts that potentially contribute to the beneficial function of the microbiome of bumble bee pollen provisions.
Forazoline A is a structurally complex PKS-NRPS hybrid produced by marine-derived sp. During the course of studies highlighting the application of IFS analysis as a powerful tool for natural products analysis, we were alerted to an earlier misinterpretation with respect to forazoline A structure elucidation. In particular, IFS reveals that forazoline A contains a thioketone moiety rarely seen in secondary metabolites and, thus, constitutes an even more intriguing structure than originally thought.
Symbiotic microbes are essential to the ecological success and evolutionary diversification of multicellular organisms. The establishment and stability of bipartite symbioses are shaped by mechanisms ensuring partner fidelity between host and symbiont. In this minireview, we demonstrate how the interface of chemical signals and host structures influences fidelity between legume root nodules and rhizobia, Hawaiian bobtail squid light organs and Allivibrio fischeri, and fungus-growing ant crypts and Pseudonocardia. Subsequently, we illustrate the morphological diversity and widespread phylogenetic distribution of specialized structures used by hosts to house microbial symbionts, indicating the importance of signal-structure interfaces across the history of multicellular life. These observations, and the insights garnered from well-studied bipartite associations, demonstrate the need to concentrate on the signal-structure interface in complex and multipartite systems, including the human microbiome.
The study of interactions between microorganisms has led to numerous discoveries, from novel antimicrobials to insights in microbial ecology. Many approaches used for the study of microbial interactions require specialized equipment and are expensive and time intensive. This paper presents a protocol for co-culture interaction assays that are inexpensive, scalable to large sample numbers, and easily adaptable to numerous experimental designs. Microorganisms are cultured together, with each well representing one pairwise combination of microorganisms. A test organism is cultured on one side of each well and first incubated in monoculture. Subsequently, target organisms are simultaneously inoculated onto the opposite side of each well using a 3D-printed inoculation stamp. After co-culture, the completed assays are scored for visual phenotypes, such as growth or inhibition. These assays can be used to confirm phenotypes or identify patterns among isolates of interest. Using this simple and effective method, users can analyze combinations of microorganisms rapidly and efficiently. This co-culture approach is applicable to antibiotic discovery as well as culture-based microbiome research and has already been successfully applied to both applications.
The geographic mosaic theory of coevolution (GMC) posits that coevolutionary dynamics go beyond local coevolution and are comprised of the following three components: geographic selection mosaics, coevolutionary hot spots, and trait remixing. It is unclear whether the GMC applies to bacteria, as horizontal gene transfer and cosmopolitan dispersal may violate theoretical assumptions. Here, we test key GMC predictions in an antibiotic-producing bacterial symbiont (genus ) that protects the crops of neotropical fungus-farming ants () from a specialized pathogen (genus ). We found that antibiotic inhibition of common pathogens was elevated in colonies from Panama compared to those from Costa Rica. Furthermore, a Panama Canal Zone population of on Barro Colorado Island (BCI) was locally adapted, whereas two neighboring populations were not, consistent with a GMC-predicted selection mosaic and a hot spot of adaptation surrounded by areas of maladaptation. Maladaptation was shaped by incongruent population genetic structure, whereas local adaptation was facilitated by geographic isolation on BCI after the flooding of the Panama Canal. Genomic assessments of antibiotic potential of 29 strains identified diverse and unique biosynthetic gene clusters in BCI strains despite low genetic diversity in the core genome. The strength of antibiotic inhibition was not correlated with the presence/absence of individual biosynthetic gene clusters or with parasite location. Rather, biosynthetic gene clusters have undergone selective sweeps, suggesting that the trait remixing dynamics conferring the long-term maintenance of antibiotic potency rely on evolutionary genetic changes within already-present biosynthetic gene clusters and not simply on the horizontal acquisition of novel genetic elements or pathways. Recently, coevolutionary theory in macroorganisms has been advanced by the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution (GMC), which considers how geography and local adaptation shape coevolutionary dynamics. Here, we test GMC in an ancient symbiosis in which the ant cultivates fungi in an agricultural system analogous to human farming. The cultivars are parasitized by the fungus The ants maintain symbiotic actinobacteria with antibiotic properties that help combat infection. This antibiotic symbiosis has persisted for tens of millions of years, raising the question of how antibiotic potency is maintained over these time scales. Our study tests the GMC in a bacterial defensive symbiosis and in a multipartite symbiosis framework. Our results show that this multipartite symbiotic system conforms to the GMC and demonstrate that this theory is applicable in both microbes and indirect symbiont-symbiont interactions.
The advent of culture independent approaches has greatly facilitated insights into the vast diversity of bacteria and the ecological importance they hold in nature and human health. Recently, metagenomic surveys and other culture-independent methods have begun to describe the distribution and diversity of microbial metabolism across environmental conditions, often using 16S rRNA gene as a marker to group bacteria into taxonomic units. However, the extent to which similarity at the conserved ribosomal 16S gene correlates with different measures of phylogeny, metabolic diversity, and ecologically relevant gene content remains contentious. Here, we examine the relationship between 16S identity, core genome divergence, and metabolic gene content across the ancient and ecologically important genus . We assessed and quantified the high variability of average nucleotide identity (ANI) and ortholog presence/absence within , even in strains identical by 16S. Furthermore, we identified key differences in shared ecologically important characters, such as antibiotic resistance, carbohydrate metabolism, biosynthetic gene clusters (BGCs), and other metabolic hallmarks, within 16S identities commonly treated as the same operational taxonomic units (OTUs). Differences between common phylogenetic measures and metabolite-gene annotations confirmed this incongruence. Our results highlight the metabolic diversity and variability within OTUs and add to the growing body of work suggesting 16S-based studies of fail to resolve important ecological and metabolic characteristics.
Bacterial symbionts frequently provide chemical defenses for their hosts, and such systems can provide discovery pathways to new antifungals and structurally intriguing metabolites. This report describes a small family of naturally occurring small molecules with chimeric structures and a mixed biosynthesis that features an unexpected but key nonenzymatic step. An insect-associated strain's activity in an murine candidiasis assay led to the discovery of a family of highly hydrogen-deficient metabolites. Bioactivity- and mass-guided fractionation led to the pyonitrins, highly complex aromatic metabolites in which 10 of the 20 carbons are quaternary, and 7 of them are contiguous. The genome revealed that the production of the pyonitrins is the result of a spontaneous reaction between biosynthetic intermediates of two well-studied metabolites, pyochelin and pyrrolnitrin. The combined discovery of the pyonitrins and identification of the responsible biosynthetic gene clusters revealed an unexpected biosynthetic route that would have prevented the discovery of these metabolites by bioinformatic analysis alone.
Two new siderophores, madurastatin D1 and D2, together with (-)-madurastatin C1, the enantiomer of a known compound, were isolated from marine-derived sp. The presence of an unusual 4-imidazolidinone ring in madurastatins D1 and D2 inspired us to sequence the sp. genome and to identify the biosynthetic gene cluster, knowledge of which enables us to now propose a biosynthetic pathway. Madurastatin D1 and D2 are moderately active in antimicrobial assays with .
Low-cost, high-throughput nucleic acid sequencing ushered the field of microbial ecology into a new era in which the microbial composition of nearly every conceivable environment on the planet is under examination. However, static "screenshots" derived from sequence-only approaches belie the underlying complexity of the microbe-microbe and microbe-host interactions occurring within these systems. Reductionist experimental models are essential to identify the microbes involved in interactions and to characterize the molecular mechanisms that manifest as complex host and environmental phenomena. Herein, we focus on three models (-, -Hawaiian bobtail squid, and gnotobiotic mice) at various levels of taxonomic complexity and experimental control used to gain molecular insight into microbe-mediated interactions. We argue that when studying microbial communities, it is crucial to consider the scope of questions that experimental systems are suited to address, especially for researchers beginning new projects. Therefore, we highlight practical applications, limitations, and tradeoffs inherent to each model.
The Brazilian stingless bee Scaptotrigona depilis requires the brood cells-associated fungus Zygosaccharomyces sp. as steroid source for metamorphosis. Besides the presence of Zygosaccharomyces sp., other fungi inhabit S. depilis brood cells, but their biological functions are unknown. Here we show that Candida sp. and Monascus ruber, isolated from cerumen of S. depilis brood provisions, interact with Zygosaccharomyces sp. and modulate its growth. Candida sp. produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that stimulate Zygosacchromyces sp. development. Monascus ruber inhibits Zygosacchromyces sp. growth by producing lovastatin, which blocks steroid biosynthesis. We also observed that in co-cultures M. ruber inhibits Candida sp. through the production of monascin. The modulation of Zygosaccharomyces sp. growth by brood cell-associated fungi suggests their involvement in S. depilis larval development. This tripartite fungal community opens new perspectives in the research of microbial interactions with bees.
Teeming within pollen provisions are diverse communities of symbiotic microbes, which provide a variety of benefits to bees. Microbes themselves may represent a major dietary resource for developing bee larvae. Despite their apparent importance in sustaining bee health, evidence linking pollen-borne microbes to larval health is currently lacking. We examined the effects of microbe-deficient diets on the fitness of larval mason bees. In a series of diet manipulations, microbe-rich maternally collected pollen provisions were replaced with increasing fractions of sterilized, microbe-deficient pollen provisions before being fed to developing larvae. Convergent findings from amino acid and fatty acid trophic biomarker analyses revealed that larvae derived a substantial amount of nutrition from microbial prey and occupied a significantly higher trophic position than that of strict herbivores. Larvae feeding on increasingly sterile diets experienced significant adverse effects on growth rates, biomass and survivorship. When completely deprived of pollen-borne microbes, larvae consistently exhibited marked decline in fitness. We conclude that microbes associated with aged pollen provisions are central to bee health, not only as nutritional mutualists, but also as a major dietary component. In an era of global bee decline, the conservation of such bee-microbe interactions may represent an important facet of pollinator protection strategies.
Laryngotracheal stenosis is an obstructive respiratory disease that leads to voicing difficulties and dyspnea with potential life-threatening consequences. The majority of incidences are due to iatrogenic etiology from endotracheal tube intubation; however, airway scarring also has idiopathic causes. While recent evidence suggests a microbial contribution to mucosal inflammation, the microbiota associated with different types of stenosis has not been characterized. High-throughput sequencing of the V4 region of the16S rRNA gene was performed to characterize the microbial communities of 61 swab samples from 17 iatrogenic and 10 adult idiopathic stenosis patients. Nonscar swabs from stenosis patients were internal controls, and eight swabs from four patients without stenosis represented external controls. Significant differences in diversity were observed between scar and nonscar samples and among sample sites, with decreased diversity detected in scar samples and the glottis region. Permutational analysis of variance (PERMANOVA) results revealed significant differences in community composition for scar versus nonscar samples, etiology type, sample site, groups (iatrogenic, idiopathic, and internal and external controls), and individual patients. Pairwise Spearman's correlation revealed a strong inverse correlation between and among all samples. Finally, bacteria in the family were found to be distinctly associated with idiopathic stenosis samples in comparison with external controls. Our findings suggest that specific microbiota and community shifts are present with laryngotracheal stenosis in adults, with members of the family , including the known pathogens and , identified in idiopathic scar. Further work is warranted to elucidate the contributing role of bacteria on the pathogenesis of laryngotracheal stenosis. The laryngotracheal region resides at the intersection between the heavily studied nasal cavity and lungs; however, examination of the microbiome in chronic inflammatory conditions of the subglottis and trachea remains scarce. To date, studies have focused on the microbiota of the vocal folds, or the glottis, for laryngeal carcinoma, as well as healthy larynges, benign vocal fold lesions, and larynges exposed to smoking and refluxate. In this study, we seek to examine the structure and composition of the microbial community in adult laryngotracheal stenosis of various etiologies. Due to the heterogeneity among the underlying pathogenesis mechanisms and clinical outcomes seen in laryngotracheal stenosis disease, we hypothesized that different microbial profiles will be detected among various stenosis etiology types. Understanding differences in the microbiota for subglottic stenosis subtypes may shed light upon etiology-specific biomarker identification and offer novel insights into management approaches for this debilitating disease.
Antimicrobial resistance is a global health crisis and few novel antimicrobials have been discovered in recent decades. Natural products, particularly from Streptomyces, are the source of most antimicrobials, yet discovery campaigns focusing on Streptomyces from the soil largely rediscover known compounds. Investigation of understudied and symbiotic sources has seen some success, yet no studies have systematically explored microbiomes for antimicrobials. Here we assess the distinct evolutionary lineages of Streptomyces from insect microbiomes as a source of new antimicrobials through large-scale isolations, bioactivity assays, genomics, metabolomics, and in vivo infection models. Insect-associated Streptomyces inhibit antimicrobial-resistant pathogens more than soil Streptomyces. Genomics and metabolomics reveal their diverse biosynthetic capabilities. Further, we describe cyphomycin, a new molecule active against multidrug resistant fungal pathogens. The evolutionary trajectories of Streptomyces from the insect microbiome influence their biosynthetic potential and ability to inhibit resistant pathogens, supporting the promise of this source in augmenting future antimicrobial discovery.
Resources available in the human nasal cavity are limited. Therefore, to successfully colonize the nasal cavity, bacteria must compete for scarce nutrients. Competition may occur directly through interference (e.g., antibiotics) or indirectly by nutrient sequestration. To investigate the nature of nasal bacterial competition, we performed coculture inhibition assays between nasal and spp. We found that isolates of coagulase-negative staphylococci (CoNS) were sensitive to growth inhibition by but that isolates were resistant to inhibition. Among , we observed that spp. were variable in their ability to inhibit CoNS. We sequenced the genomes of 10 species isolates, including 3 isolates that strongly inhibited CoNS and 7 other species isolates that only weakly inhibited CoNS. Using a comparative genomics approach, we found that the genomes were enriched in genes for iron acquisition and harbored a biosynthetic gene cluster (BGC) for siderophore production, absent in the noninhibitory species genomes. Using a chrome azurol S assay, we confirmed that produced siderophores. We demonstrated that iron supplementation rescued CoNS from inhibition by , suggesting that inhibition was due to iron restriction through siderophore production. Through comparative metabolomics and molecular networking, we identified the siderophore produced by as dehydroxynocardamine. Finally, we confirmed that the dehydroxynocardamine BGC is expressed by analyzing human nasal metatranscriptomes from the NIH Human Microbiome Project. Together, our results suggest that bacteria produce siderophores to compete for limited available iron in the nasal cavity and improve their fitness. Within the nasal cavity, interference competition through antimicrobial production is prevalent. For instance, nasal species strains can inhibit the growth of other bacteria through the production of nonribosomal peptides and ribosomally synthesized and posttranslationally modified peptides. In contrast, bacteria engaging in exploitation competition modify the external environment to prevent competitors from growing, usually by hindering access to or depleting essential nutrients. As the nasal cavity is a nutrient-limited environment, we hypothesized that exploitation competition occurs in this system. We determined that produces an iron-chelating siderophore, and this iron-sequestering molecule correlates with the ability to inhibit the growth of coagulase-negative staphylococci. Furthermore, we found that the genes required for siderophore production are expressed Thus, although siderophore production by bacteria is often considered a virulence trait, our work indicates that bacteria may produce siderophores to compete for limited iron in the human nasal cavity.
The gut microbiota confers resistance to pathogens of the intestinal ecosystem, yet the dynamics of pathogen-microbiome interactions and the metabolites involved in this process remain largely unknown. Here, we use gnotobiotic mice infected with the virulent pathogen serovar Typhimurium or the opportunistic pathogen in combination with metagenomics and discovery metabolomics to identify changes in the community and metabolome during infection. To isolate the role of the microbiota in response to pathogens, we compared mice monocolonized with the pathogen, uninfected mice "humanized" with a synthetic human microbiome, or infected humanized mice. In -infected mice, by 3 days into infection, microbiome community structure and function changed substantially, with a rise in strains and a reduction in biosynthetic gene cluster potential. In contrast, -infected mice had few microbiome changes. The LC-MS metabolomic fingerprint of the cecum differed between mice monocolonized with either pathogen and humanized infected mice. Specifically, we identified an increase in glutathione disulfide, glutathione cysteine disulfide, inosine 5'-monophosphate, and hydroxybutyrylcarnitine in mice infected with in contrast to uninfected mice and mice monocolonized with These metabolites potentially play a role in pathogen-induced oxidative stress. These results provide insight into how the microbiota community members interact with each other and with pathogens on a metabolic level. The gut microbiota is increasingly recognized for playing a critical role in human health and disease, especially in conferring resistance to both virulent pathogens such as , which infects 1.2 million people in the United States every year (E. Scallan, R. M. Hoekstra, F. J. Angulo, R. V. Tauxe, et al., Emerg Infect Dis 17:7-15, 2011, https://doi.org/10.3201/eid1701.P11101), and opportunistic pathogens like , which causes an estimated 46,000 cases of invasive candidiasis each year in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, s, , 2013). Using a gnotobiotic mouse model, we investigate potential changes in gut microbial community structure and function during infection using metagenomics and metabolomics. We observe that changes in the community and in biosynthetic gene cluster potential occur within 3 days for the virulent serovar Typhimurium, but there are minimal changes with a poorly colonizing In addition, the metabolome shifts depending on infection status, including changes in glutathione metabolites in response to a infection, potentially in response to host oxidative stress.
Evolutionary adaptations for maintaining beneficial microbes are hallmarks of mutualistic evolution. Fungus-farming "attine" ant species have complex cuticular modifications and specialized glands that house and nourish antibiotic-producing Actinobacteria symbionts, which in turn protect their hosts' fungus gardens from pathogens. Here we reconstruct ant-Actinobacteria evolutionary history across the full range of variation within subtribe Attina by combining dated phylogenomic and ultramorphological analyses. Ancestral-state analyses indicate the ant-Actinobacteria symbiosis arose early in attine-ant evolution, a conclusion consistent with direct observations of Actinobacteria on fossil ants in Oligo-Miocene amber. qPCR indicates that the dominant ant-associated Actinobacteria belong to the genus Tracing the evolutionary trajectories of -maintaining mechanisms across attine ants reveals a continuum of adaptations. In species, which retain many ancestral morphological and behavioral traits, occur in specific locations on the legs and antennae, unassociated with any specialized structures. In contrast, specialized cuticular structures, including crypts and tubercles, evolved at least three times in derived attine-ant lineages. Conspicuous caste differences in -maintaining structures, in which specialized structures are present in worker ants and queens but reduced or lost in males, are consistent with vertical transmission. Although the majority of attine ants are associated with , there have been multiple losses of bacterial symbionts and bacteria-maintaining structures in different lineages over evolutionary time. The early origin of ant- mutualism and the multiple evolutionary convergences on strikingly similar anatomical adaptations for maintaining bacterial symbionts indicate that have played a critical role in the evolution of ant fungiculture.
Antibiotics revolutionized medicine and remain its cornerstone. Despite their global importance and the continuous threat of resistant pathogens, few antibiotics have been discovered in recent years. Natural products, especially the secondary metabolites of Actinobacteria, have been the traditional discovery source of antibiotics. In nature, the chemistry of antibiotic natural products is shaped by the unique evolution and ecology of their producing organisms, yet these influences remain largely unknown. Here, we highlight the ecology of antibiotics employed by microbes in defensive symbioses and review the evolutionary processes underlying the chemical diversity and activity of microbe-derived antibiotics, including the dynamics of vertical and lateral transmission of biosynthetic pathways and the evolution of efficacy, targeting specificity, and toxicity. We argue that a deeper understanding of the ecology and evolution of microbial interactions and the metabolites that mediate them will allow for an alternative, rational approach to discover new antibiotics.
Plant cell-wall polysaccharides constitute the most abundant but recalcitrant organic carbon source in nature. Microbes residing in the digestive tract of herbivorous bilaterians are particularly efficient at depolymerizing polysaccharides into fermentable sugars and play a significant support role towards their host's lifestyle. Here, we combine large-scale functional screening of fosmid libraries, shotgun sequencing, and biochemical assays to interrogate the gut microbiota of the wood-feeding "higher" termite Globitermes brachycerastes. A number of putative polysaccharide utilization gene clusters were identified with multiple fibrolytic genes. Our large-scale functional screening of 50,000 fosmid clones resulted in 464 clones demonstrating plant polysaccharide-degrading activities, including 267 endoglucanase-, 24 exoglucanase-, 72 β-glucosidase-, and 101 endoxylanase-positive clones. We sequenced 173 functionally active clones and identified ~219 genes encoding putative carbohydrate-active enzymes (CAZymes) targeting cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin. Further analyses revealed that 68 of 154 contigs encode one or more CAZyme, which includes 35 examples of putative saccharolytic operons, suggesting that clustering of CAZymes is common in termite gut microbial inhabitants. Biochemical characterization of a representative xylanase cluster demonstrated that constituent enzymes exhibited complementary physicochemical properties and saccharolytic capabilities. Furthermore, diverse cellobiose-metabolizing enzymes include β-glucosidases, cellobiose phosphorylases, and phopho-6-β-glucosidases were identified and functionally verified, indicating that the termite gut micro-ecosystem utilizes diverse metabolic pathways to interconnect hydrolysis and central metabolism. Collectively, these results provide an in-depth view of the adaptation and digestive strategies employed by gut microbiota within this tiny-yet-efficient host-associated ecosystem.
Deconstructing the intricate matrix of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin poses a major challenge in biofuel production. In diverse environments in nature, some microbial communities, are able to overcome plant biomass recalcitrance. Identifying key degraders of each component of plant cell wall can help improve biological degradation of plant feedstock. Here, we sequenced the metagenome of lignocellulose-adapted microbial consortia sub-cultured on xylan and alkali lignin media. We observed a drastic shift on community composition after sub-culturing, independently of the original consortia. Proteobacteria relative abundance increased after growth in alkali lignin medium, while Bacteroidetes abundance increased after growth in xylan medium. At the genus level, was more abundant in the communities growing on alkali lignin, in the communities growing on xylan and abundance was the highest in the original microbial consortia. We also observed functional convergence of microbial communities after incubation in alkali lignin, due to an enrichment of genes involved in benzoate degradation and catechol ortho-cleavage pathways. Our results represent an important step toward the elucidation of key members of microbial communities on lignocellulose degradation and may aide the design of novel lignocellulolytic microbial consortia that are able to efficiently degrade plant cell wall polymers.
sp. strain WMMA1996 was isolated in 2013 off the coast of the Florida Keys, United States, from a marine sponge as part of bacterial coculture-based drug discovery initiatives. Analysis of the ∼6.44-Mb genome reveals this microbe's potential role in the discovery of new drugs.
sp. strain WMMA184 was isolated from the marine coral as part of ongoing drug discovery efforts. Analysis of the 4.16-Mb genome provides information regarding interspecies interactions as it pertains to the regulation of secondary metabolism and natural product biosynthesis potential.
Ants use pheromones to coordinate their communal activity. Volatile pyrazines, for instance, mediate food resource gathering and alarm behaviors in different ant species. Here we report that leaf-cutter ant-associated bacteria produce a family of pyrazines that includes members previously identified as ant trail and alarm pheromones. We found that L-threonine induces the bacterial production of the trail pheromone pyrazines, which are common for the host leaf-cutter ants. Isotope feeding experiments revealed that L-threonine along with sodium acetate were the biosynthetic precursors of these natural products and a biosynthetic pathway was proposed.
The larval stage of the stingless bee Scaptotrigona depilis must consume a specific brood cell fungus in order to continue development. Here we show that this fungus is a member of the genus Zygosaccharomyces and provides essential steroid precursors to the developing bee. Insect pupation requires ecdysteroid hormones, and as insects cannot synthesize sterols de novo, they must obtain steroids in their diet. Larval in vitro culturing assays demonstrated that consuming ergosterol recapitulates the developmental effects on S. depilis as ingestion of Zygosaccharomyces sp. cells. Thus, we determined the molecular underpinning of this intimate mutualistic symbiosis. Phylogenetic analyses showed that similar cases of bee-Zygosaccharomyces symbiosis may exist. This unprecedented case of bee-fungus symbiosis driven by steroid requirement brings new perspectives regarding pollinator-microbiota interaction and preservation.
Advances in genomics and metabolomics have made clear in recent years that microbial biosynthetic capacities on Earth far exceed previous expectations. This is attributable, in part, to the realization that most microbial natural product (NP) producers harbor biosynthetic machineries not readily amenable to classical laboratory fermentation conditions. Such "cryptic" or dormant biosynthetic gene clusters (BGCs) encode for a vast assortment of potentially new antibiotics and, as such, have become extremely attractive targets for activation under controlled laboratory conditions. We report here that coculturing of a Rhodococcus sp. and a Micromonospora sp. affords keyicin, a new and otherwise unattainable bis-nitroglycosylated anthracycline whose mechanism of action (MOA) appears to deviate from those of other anthracyclines. The structure of keyicin was elucidated using high resolution MS and NMR technologies, as well as detailed molecular modeling studies. Sequencing of the keyicin BGC (within the Micromonospora genome) enabled both structural and genomic comparisons to other anthracycline-producing systems informing efforts to characterize keyicin. The new NP was found to be selectively active against Gram-positive bacteria including both Rhodococcus sp. and Mycobacterium sp. E. coli-based chemical genomics studies revealed that keyicin's MOA, in contrast to many other anthracyclines, does not invoke nucleic acid damage.
The evolutionary success of hymenopteran insects has been associated with complex physiological and behavioral defense mechanisms against pathogens and parasites. Among these strategies are symbiotic associations between Hymenoptera and antibiotic-producing Actinobacteria, which provide protection to insect hosts. Herein, we examine associations between culturable Actinobacteria and 29 species of tropical hymenopteran insects that span five families, including Apidae (bees), Vespidae (wasps), and Formicidae (ants). In total, 197 Actinobacteria isolates were obtained from 22 of the 29 different insect species sampled. Through 16S rRNA gene sequences of 161 isolates, we show that 91% of the symbionts correspond to members of the genus with less common isolates belonging to and . Electron microscopy revealed the presence of filamentous bacteria with morphology in brood chambers of two different species of the eusocial wasps. Four fungal strains in the family Ophiocordycipitacea (Hypocreales) known to be specialized insect parasites were also isolated. Bioassay challenges between the Actinobacteria and their possible targeted pathogenic antagonist (both obtained from the same insect at the genus or species level) provide evidence that different Actinobacteria isolates produced antifungal activity, supporting the hypothesis of a defensive association between the insects and these microbe species. Finally, phylogenetic analysis of 16S rRNA and demonstrate the presence of five lineages associated with a broad range of insect species. Particularly our Clade I is of much interest as it is composed of one 16S rRNA phylotype repeatedly isolated from different insect groups in our sample. This phylotype corresponds to a previously described lineage of host-associated . These results suggest Clade I is a Hymenoptera host-associated lineage spanning several new insect taxa and ranging from the American temperate to the Neotropical region. Our work thus provides important insights into the widespread distribution of Actinobacteria and hymenopteran insects associations, while also pointing at novel resources that could be targeted for the discovery of active natural products with great potential in medical and biotechnological applications.
Growers often use fungicide sprays during bloom to protect crops against disease, which exposes bees to fungicide residues. Although considered "bee-safe," there is mounting evidence that fungicide residues in pollen are associated with bee declines (for both honey and bumble bee species). While the mechanisms remain relatively unknown, researchers have speculated that bee-microbe symbioses are involved. Microbes play a pivotal role in the preservation and/or processing of pollen, which serves as nutrition for larval bees. By altering the microbial community, it is likely that fungicides disrupt these microbe-mediated services, and thereby compromise bee health. This manuscript describes the protocols used to investigate the indirect mechanism(s) by which fungicides may be causing colony decline. Cage experiments exposing bees to fungicide-treated flowers have already provided the first evidence that fungicides cause profound colony losses in a native bumble bee (Bombus impatiens). Using field-relevant doses of fungicides, a series of experiments have been developed to provide a finer description of microbial community dynamics of fungicide-exposed pollen. Shifts in the structural composition of fungal and bacterial assemblages within the pollen microbiome are investigated by next-generation sequencing and metagenomic analysis. Experiments developed herein have been designed to provide a mechanistic understanding of how fungicides affect the microbiome of pollen-provisions. Ultimately, these findings should shed light on the indirect pathway through which fungicides may be causing colony declines.
Leaf-cutter ants (Atta and Acromyrmex) use fresh leaves to cultivate a mutualistic fungus (Leucoagaricus gongylophorus) for food in underground gardens. A new ant queen propagates the cultivar by taking a small fragment of fungus from her parent colony on her nuptial flight and uses it to begin her own colony. Recent research has shown that the ants' fungus gardens are colonized by symbiotic bacteria that perform important functions related to nitrogen fixation and have been implicated in contributing to plant biomass degradation. Here, we combine bacterial culturing in several media for counts and identification using the 16S rRNA gene with electron microscopy to investigate the process of cellulose degradation in the fungus garden and refuse dumps, and to assess the potential role of symbiotic bacteria. We show through electron microscopy that plant cell walls are visibly degraded in the bottom section of fungus gardens and refuse dumps, and that bacteria are more abundant in these sections. We also consistently isolated cellulolytic bacteria from all sections of fungus gardens. Finally, we show by culture-dependent and electron microscopy analysis that the fungus garden pellets carried by recently mated queens are colonized by fungus garden-associated bacteria. Taken together, our results indicate that cellulose is degraded in fungus gardens, and that fungus garden bacteria that may contribute to this deconstruction are vertically transmitted by new queens.
Fungus-growing ants engage in complex symbiotic relationships with their fungal crop, specialized fungal pathogens, and bacteria that provide chemical defenses. In an effort to understand the evolutionary origins of this multilateral system, we investigated bacteria isolated from fungi. One bacterial strain (Streptomyces sp. CLI2509) from the bracket fungus Hymenochaete rubiginosa, produced an unusual peptide, tryptorubin A, which contains heteroaromatic links between side chains that give it a rigid polycyclic globular structure. The three-dimensional structure was determined by NMR and MS, including a C-C COSY of isotopically enriched material, degradation, derivatives, and computer modeling. Whole genome sequencing identified a likely pair of biosynthetic genes responsible for tryptorubin A's linear hexapeptide backbone. The genome also revealed the close relationship between CLI2509 and Streptomyces sp. SPB78, which was previously implicated in an insect-bacterium symbiosis.
Insects cope with environmental threats using a broad array of strategies. A key strategy, widespread among insects but unappreciated until recently, is the use of molecular defenses from symbiotic microbes. Insect-microbe defensive symbioses span the diversity of insect lineages and microbial partners and use molecules ranging from reactive oxygen species to small molecules to protein toxins to defend against predators, parasites, and microbial pathogens. These systems have a strong initial track record as sources of novel biologically active compounds with therapeutic potential. This review surveys the molecular basis for insect-microbe defensive symbioses with a focus on the ecological contexts for defense and on emerging lessons about molecular diversity from bacterial genomes.
Nonribosomally synthesized peptides (NRPs) are natural products with widespread applications in medicine and biotechnology. Many algorithms have been developed to predict the substrate specificities of nonribosomal peptide synthetase adenylation (A) domains from DNA sequences, which enables prioritization and dereplication, and integration with other data types in discovery efforts. However, insufficient training data and a lack of clarity regarding prediction quality have impeded optimal use. Here, we introduce prediCAT, a new phylogenetics-inspired algorithm, which quantitatively estimates the degree of predictability of each A-domain. We then systematically benchmarked all algorithms on a newly gathered, independent test set of 434 A-domain sequences, showing that active-site-motif-based algorithms outperform whole-domain-based methods. Subsequently, we developed SANDPUMA, a powerful ensemble algorithm, based on newly trained versions of all high-performing algorithms, which significantly outperforms individual methods. Finally, we deployed SANDPUMA in a systematic investigation of 7635 Actinobacteria genomes, suggesting that NRP chemical diversity is much higher than previously estimated. SANDPUMA has been integrated into the widely used antiSMASH biosynthetic gene cluster analysis pipeline and is also available as an open-source, standalone tool. SANDPUMA is freely available at https://bitbucket.org/chevrm/sandpuma and as a docker image at https://hub.docker.com/r/chevrm/sandpuma/ under the GNU Public License 3 (GPL3). email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.
Mass spectrometry imaging is a powerful analytical technique for detecting and determining spatial distributions of molecules within a sample. Typically, mass spectrometry imaging is limited to the analysis of thin tissue sections taken from the middle of a sample. In this work, we present a mass spectrometry imaging method for the detection of compounds produced by bacteria on the outside surface of ant exoskeletons in response to pathogen exposure. Fungus-growing ants have a specialized mutualism with Pseudonocardia, a bacterium that lives on the ants' exoskeletons and helps protect their fungal garden food source from harmful pathogens. The developed method allows for visualization of bacterial-derived compounds on the ant exoskeleton. This method demonstrates the capability to detect compounds that are specifically localized to the bacterial patch on ant exoskeletons, shows good reproducibility across individual ants, and achieves accurate mass measurements within 5 ppm error when using a high-resolution, accurate-mass mass spectrometer.
Lateral gene transfer (LGT) profoundly shapes the evolution of bacterial lineages. LGT across disparate phylogenetic groups and genome content diversity between related organisms suggest a model of bacterial evolution that views LGT as rampant and promiscuous. It has even driven the argument that species concepts and tree-based phylogenetics cannot be applied to bacteria. Here, we show that acquisition and retention of genes through LGT are surprisingly rare in the ubiquitous and biomedically important bacterial genus Using a molecular clock, we estimate that the bacteria are ~380 million years old, indicating that this bacterial genus is as ancient as land vertebrates. Calibrating LGT rate to this geologic time span, we find that on average only 10 genes per million years were acquired and subsequently maintained. Over that same time span, accumulated thousands of point mutations. By explicitly incorporating evolutionary timescale into our analyses, we provide a dramatically different view on the dynamics of LGT and its impact on bacterial evolution. Tree-based phylogenetics and the use of species as units of diversity lie at the foundation of modern biology. In bacteria, these pillars of evolutionary theory have been called into question due to the observation of thousands of lateral gene transfer (LGT) events within and between lineages. Here, we show that acquisition and retention of genes through LGT are exceedingly rare in the bacterial genus , with merely one gene acquired in lineages every 100,000 years. These findings stand in contrast to the current assumption of rampant genetic exchange, which has become the dominant hypothesis used to explain bacterial diversity. Our results support a more nuanced understanding of genetic exchange, with LGT impacting evolution over short timescales but playing a significant role over long timescales. Deeper understanding of LGT provides new insight into the evolutionary history of life on Earth, as the vast majority of this history is microbial.
Investigations of gut microbiomes have shed light on the diversity and genetic content of these communities, and helped shape our understanding of how host-associated microorganisms influence host physiology, behavior, and health. Despite the importance of gut microbes to metazoans, our understanding of the changes in diversity and composition across the alimentary tract, and the source of the resident community are limited. Here, using community metagenomics and 16S rRNA gene sequencing, we assess microbial community diversity and coding potential in the foregut, midgut, and hindgut of a juvenile Panchlora cockroach, which resides in the refuse piles of the leaf-cutter ant species Atta colombica. We found a significant shift in the microbial community structure and coding potential throughout the three gut sections of Panchlora sp., and through comparison with previously generated metagenomes of the cockroach's food source and niche, we reveal that this shift in microbial community composition is influenced by the ecosystems in which Panchlora sp. occurs. While the foregut is composed of microbes that likely originate from the symbiotic fungus gardens of the ants, the midgut and hindgut are composed of a microbial community that is likely cockroach-specific. Analogous to mammalian systems, the midgut and hindgut appear to be dominated by Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes with the capacity for polysaccharide degradation, suggesting they may assist in the degradation of dietary plant material. Our work underscores the prominence of community changes throughout gut microbiomes and highlights ecological factors that underpin the structure and function of the symbiotic microbial communities of metazoans.
Depolymerizing lignin, the complex phenolic polymer fortifying plant cell walls, is an essential but challenging starting point for the lignocellulosics industries. The variety of ether- and carbon-carbon interunit linkages produced via radical coupling during lignification limit chemical and biological depolymerization efficiency. In an ancient fungus-cultivating termite system, we reveal unprecedentedly rapid lignin depolymerization and degradation by combining laboratory feeding experiments, lignocellulosic compositional measurements, electron microscopy, 2D-NMR, and thermochemolysis. In a gut transit time of under 3.5 h, in young worker termites, poplar lignin sidechains are extensively cleaved and the polymer is significantly depleted, leaving a residue almost completely devoid of various condensed units that are traditionally recognized to be the most recalcitrant. Subsequently, the fungus-comb microbiome preferentially uses xylose and cleaves polysaccharides, thus facilitating final utilization of easily digestible oligosaccharides by old worker termites. This complementary symbiotic pretreatment process in the fungus-growing termite symbiosis reveals a previously unappreciated natural system for efficient lignocellulose degradation.
Three new dentigerumycin analogues are produced by Streptomyces sp. M41, a bacterium isolated from a South African termite, Macrotermes natalensis. The structures of the complex nonribosomal peptide synthetase-polyketide synthase (NRPS/PKS) hybrid compounds were determined by 1D- and 2D-NMR spectroscopy, high-resolution mass spectrometry, and circular dichroism (CD) spectroscopy. Both cyclic and linear peptides are reported, and the genetic organization of the NRPS modules within the biosynthetic gene cluster accounts for the observed structural diversity.
Bioassay-guided metabolomic analyses led to the characterization of four new 20-membered glycosylated polyketide macrolactams, macrotermycins A-D, from a termite-associated actinomycete, Amycolatopsis sp. M39. M39's sequenced genome revealed the macrotermycin's putative biosynthetic gene cluster. Macrotermycins A and C had antibacterial activity against human-pathogenic Staphylococcus aureus and, of greater ecological relevance, they also had selective antifungal activity against a fungal parasite of the termite fungal garden.
Micromonospora sp. strain WMMB235 was isolated in 2011 off the coast of the Florida Keys, USA, from a marine ascidian as part of an ongoing drug discovery project. Analysis of the ~7.1-Mb genome provides insight into this strain's biosynthetic potential, means of regulation, and response to coculturing conditions.
Subterranean termites need to minimize potentially pathogenic and competitive fungi in their environment in order to maintain colony health. We examined the ability of Actinobacteria isolated from termite guts in suppressing microorganisms commonly encountered in a subterranean environment. Guts from two subterranean termite species, Reticulitermes flavipes (Kollar) and Reticulitermes tibialis Banks, were extracted and plated on selective chitin media. A total of 38 Actinobacteria isolates were selected for in vitro growth inhibition assays. Target microbes included three strains of Serratia marcescens Bizio, two mold fungi (Trichoderma sp. and Metarhizium sp.), a yeast fungus (Candida albicans (C.P. Robin) Berkhout), and four basidiomycete fungi (Gloeophyllum trabeum (Persoon) Murrill, Tyromyces palustris (Berkeley & M.A. Curtis) Murrill, Irpex lacteus (Fries) Fries, and Trametes versicolor (L.) Lloyd). Results showed both broad and narrow ranges of antimicrobial activity against the mold fungi, yeast fungus, and S. marcescens isolates by the Actinobacteria selected. This suggests that termite gut-associated Actinobacteria produce secondary antimicrobial compounds that may be important for pathogen inhibition in termites. Basidiomycete fungi were strongly inhibited by the selected Actinobacteria isolates, with G. trabeum and T. versicolor being most inhibited, followed by I. lacteus and T. palustris The degree of inhibition was correlated with shifts in pH caused by the Actinobacteria. Nearly all Actinobacteria isolates raised pH of the growth medium to basic levels (i.e. pH ∼8.0-9.5). We summarize antimicrobial activity of these termite gut-associated Actinobacteria and examine the implications of these pH shifts.
The Rhodococcus strain WMMA185 was isolated from the marine sponge Chondrilla nucula as part of ongoing drug discovery efforts. Analysis of the 4.44-Mb genome provides information regarding interspecies interactions as pertains to regulation of secondary metabolism and natural product biosynthetic potentials.
The bacteria harbored by fungus-growing ants produce a variety of small molecules that help maintain a complex multilateral symbiosis. In a survey of antifungal compounds from these bacteria, we discovered selvamicin, an unusual antifungal polyene macrolide, in bacterial isolates from two neighboring ant nests. Selvamicin resembles the clinically important antifungals nystatin A1 and amphotericin B, but it has several distinctive structural features: a noncationic 6-deoxymannose sugar at the canonical glycosylation site and a second sugar, an unusual 4-O-methyldigitoxose, at the opposite end of selvamicin's shortened polyene macrolide. It also lacks some of the pharmacokinetic liabilities of the clinical agents and appears to have a different target. Whole genome sequencing revealed the putative type I polyketide gene cluster responsible for selvamicin's biosynthesis including a subcluster of genes consistent with selvamicin's 4-O-methyldigitoxose sugar. Although the selvamicin biosynthetic cluster is virtually identical in both bacterial producers, in one it is on the chromosome, in the other it is on a plasmid. These alternative genomic contexts illustrate the biosynthetic gene cluster mobility that underlies the diversity and distribution of chemical defenses by the specialized bacteria in this multilateral symbiosis.
Herbivores use symbiotic microbes to help derive energy and nutrients from plant material. Leaf-cutter ants are a paradigmatic example, cultivating their mutualistic fungus Leucoagaricus gongylophorus on plant biomass that workers forage from a diverse collection of plant species. Here, we investigate the metabolic flexibility of the ants' fungal cultivar for utilizing different plant biomass. Using feeding experiments and a novel approach in metaproteomics, we examine the enzymatic response of L. gongylophorus to leaves, flowers, oats or a mixture of all three. Across all treatments, our analysis identified and quantified 1766 different fungal proteins, including 161 putative biomass-degrading enzymes. We found significant differences in the protein profiles in the fungus gardens of subcolonies fed different plant substrates. When provided with leaves or flowers, which contain the majority of their energy as recalcitrant plant polymers, the fungus gardens produced more proteins predicted to break down cellulose: endoglucanase, exoglucanase and β-glucosidase. Further, the complete metaproteomes for the leaves and flowers treatments were very similar, while the mixed substrate treatment closely resembled the treatment with oats alone. This indicates that when provided a mixture of plant substrates, fungus gardens preferentially break down the simpler, more digestible substrates. This flexible, substrate-specific enzymatic response of the fungal cultivar allows leaf-cutter ants to derive energy from a wide range of substrates, which likely contributes to their ability to be dominant generalist herbivores.
Subterranean termites need to minimize potentially pathogenic and competitive fungi in their environment in order to maintain colony health. We examined the ability of Actinobacteria isolated from termite guts in suppressing microorganisms commonly encountered in a subterranean environment. Guts from two subterranean termite species, Reticulitermes flavipes (Kollar) and Reticulitermes tibialis Banks, were extracted and plated on selective chitin media. A total of 38 Actinobacteria isolates were selected for in vitro growth inhibition assays. Target microbes included three strains of Serratia marcescens Bizio, two mold fungi (Trichoderma sp. and Metarhizium sp.), a yeast fungus (Candida albicans (C.P. Robin) Berkhout), and four basidiomycete fungi (Gloeophyllum trabeum (Persoon) Murrill, Tyromyces palustris (Berkeley & M.A. Curtis) Murrill, Irpex lacteus (Fries) Fries, and Trametes versicolor (L.) Lloyd). Results showed both broad and narrow ranges of antimicrobial activity against the mold fungi, yeast fungus, and S. marcescens isolates by the Actinobacteria selected. This suggests that termite gut-associated Actinobacteria produce secondary antimicrobial compounds that may be important for pathogen inhibition in termites. Basidiomycete fungi were strongly inhibited by the selected Actinobacteria isolates, with G. trabeum and T. versicolor being most inhibited, followed by I. lacteus and T. palustris The degree of inhibition was correlated with shifts in pH caused by the Actinobacteria. Nearly all Actinobacteria isolates raised pH of the growth medium to basic levels (i.e. pH ∼8.0-9.5). We summarize antimicrobial activity of these termite gut-associated Actinobacteria and examine the implications of these pH shifts.
The ancient phylum Actinobacteria is composed of phylogenetically and physiologically diverse bacteria that help Earth's ecosystems function. As free-living organisms and symbionts of herbivorous animals, Actinobacteria contribute to the global carbon cycle through the breakdown of plant biomass. In addition, they mediate community dynamics as producers of small molecules with diverse biological activities. Together, the evolution of high cellulolytic ability and diverse chemistry, shaped by their ecological roles in nature, make Actinobacteria a promising group for the bioenergy industry. Specifically, their enzymes can contribute to industrial-scale breakdown of cellulosic plant biomass into simple sugars that can then be converted into biofuels. Furthermore, harnessing their ability to biosynthesize a range of small molecules has potential for the production of specialty biofuels.
The evolution of cellulose degradation was a defining event in the history of life. Without efficient decomposition and recycling, dead plant biomass would quickly accumulate and become inaccessible to terrestrial food webs and the global carbon cycle. On land, the primary drivers of plant biomass deconstruction are fungi and bacteria in the soil or associated with herbivorous eukaryotes. While the ecological importance of plant-decomposing microbes is well established, little is known about the distribution or evolution of cellulolytic activity in any bacterial genus. Here we show that in Streptomyces, a genus of Actinobacteria abundant in soil and symbiotic niches, the ability to rapidly degrade cellulose is largely restricted to two clades of host-associated strains and is not a conserved characteristic of the Streptomyces genus or host-associated strains. Our comparative genomics identify that while plant biomass degrading genes (CAZy) are widespread in Streptomyces, key enzyme families are enriched in highly cellulolytic strains. Transcriptomic analyses demonstrate that cellulolytic strains express a suite of multi-domain CAZy enzymes that are coregulated by the CebR transcriptional regulator. Using targeted gene deletions, we verify the importance of a highly expressed cellulase (GH6 family cellobiohydrolase) and the CebR transcriptional repressor to the cellulolytic phenotype. Evolutionary analyses identify complex genomic modifications that drive plant biomass deconstruction in Streptomyces, including acquisition and selective retention of CAZy genes and transcriptional regulators. Our results suggest that host-associated niches have selected some symbiotic Streptomyces for increased cellulose degrading activity and that symbiotic bacteria are a rich biochemical and enzymatic resource for biotechnology.
We announce the complete genome sequence ofBacillussp. strain SDLI1, isolated from larval gut of the stingless beeScaptotrigona depilis The 4.13-Mb circular chromosome harbors biosynthetic gene clusters for the production of antimicrobial compounds.
Deconstruction of the cellulose in plant cell walls is critical for carbon flow through ecosystems and for the production of sustainable cellulosic biofuels. Our understanding of cellulose deconstruction is largely limited to the study of microbes in isolation, but in nature, this process is driven by microbes within complex communities. In Neotropical forests, microbes in leaf-cutter ant refuse dumps are important for carbon turnover. These dumps consist of decaying plant material and a diverse bacterial community, as shown here by electron microscopy. To study the portion of the community capable of cellulose degradation, we performed enrichments on cellulose using material from five Atta colombica refuse dumps. The ability of enriched communities to degrade cellulose varied significantly across refuse dumps. 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing of enriched samples identified that the community structure correlated with refuse dump and with degradation ability. Overall, samples were dominated by Bacteroidetes, Gammaproteobacteria, and Betaproteobacteria. Half of abundant operational taxonomic units (OTUs) across samples were classified within genera containing known cellulose degraders, including Acidovorax, the most abundant OTU detected across samples, which was positively correlated with cellulolytic ability. A representative Acidovorax strain was isolated, but did not grow on cellulose alone. Phenotypic and compositional analyses of enrichment cultures, such as those presented here, help link community composition with cellulolytic ability and provide insight into the complexity of community-based cellulose degradation.
Many microorganisms with specialized lifestyles have reduced genomes. This is best understood in beneficial bacterial symbioses, where partner fidelity facilitates loss of genes necessary for living independently. Specialized microbial pathogens may also exhibit gene loss relative to generalists. Here, we demonstrate that Escovopsis weberi, a fungal parasite of the crops of fungus-growing ants, has a reduced genome in terms of both size and gene content relative to closely related but less specialized fungi. Although primary metabolism genes have been retained, the E. weberi genome is depleted in carbohydrate active enzymes, which is consistent with reliance on a host with these functions. E. weberi has also lost genes considered necessary for sexual reproduction. Contrasting these losses, the genome encodes unique secondary metabolite biosynthesis clusters, some of which include genes that exhibit up-regulated expression during host attack. Thus, the specialized nature of the interaction between Escovopsis and ant agriculture is reflected in the parasite's genome.
Bacterial symbionts of fungus-growing ants occupy a highly specialized ecological niche and face the constant existential threat of displacement by another strain of ant-adapted bacteria. As part of a systematic study of the small molecules underlying this fraternal competition, we discovered an analog of the antitumor agent rebeccamycin, a member of the increasingly important indolocarbazole family. While several gene clusters consistent with this molecule's newly reported modification had previously been identified in metagenomic studies, the metabolite itself has been cryptic. The biosynthetic gene cluster for 9-methoxyrebeccamycin is encoded on a plasmid in a manner reminiscent of plasmid-derived peptide antimicrobials that commonly mediate antagonism among closely related Gram-negative bacteria.
In most ecosystems, microbes are the dominant consumers, commandeering much of the heterotrophic biomass circulating through food webs. Characterizing functional diversity within the microbiome, therefore, is critical to understanding ecosystem functioning, particularly in an era of global biodiversity loss. Using isotopic fingerprinting, we investigated the trophic positions of a broad diversity of heterotrophic organisms. Specifically, we examined the naturally occurring stable isotopes of nitrogen ((15)N:(14)N) within amino acids extracted from proteobacteria, actinomycetes, ascomycetes, and basidiomycetes, as well as from vertebrate and invertebrate macrofauna (crustaceans, fish, insects, and mammals). Here, we report that patterns of intertrophic (15)N-discrimination were remarkably similar among bacteria, fungi, and animals, which permitted unambiguous measurement of consumer trophic position, independent of phylogeny or ecosystem type. The observed similarities among bacterial, fungal, and animal consumers suggest that within a trophic hierarchy, microbiota are equivalent to, and can be interdigitated with, macrobiota. To further test the universality of this finding, we examined Neotropical fungus gardens, communities in which bacteria, fungi, and animals are entwined in an ancient, quadripartite symbiosis. We reveal that this symbiosis is a discrete four-level food chain, wherein bacteria function as the apex carnivores, animals and fungi are meso-consumers, and the sole herbivores are fungi. Together, our findings demonstrate that bacteria, fungi, and animals can be integrated within a food chain, effectively uniting the macro- and microbiome in food web ecology and facilitating greater inclusion of the microbiome in studies of functional diversity.
Bark beetles are associated with diverse communities of symbionts. Although fungi have received significant attention, we know little about how bacteria, and in particular their interactions with fungi, affect bark beetle reproduction. We tested how interactions between four bacterial associates, two symbiotic fungi, and two opportunistic fungi affect performance of mountain pine beetles (Dendroctonus ponderosae) in host tissue. We compared beetle performance in phloem of its historical host, lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), and its novel host recently accessed through warming climate, jack pine (Pinus banksiana). Overall, beetles produced more larvae, and established longer ovipositional and larval galleries in host tissue predominantly colonized by the symbiotic fungi, Grosmannia clavigera, or Ophiostoma montium than by the opportunistic colonizer Aspergillus and to a lesser extent, Trichoderma. This occurred in both historical and naïve hosts. Impacts of bacteria on beetle reproduction depended on particular fungus-bacterium combinations and host species. Some bacteria, e.g., Pseudomonas sp. D4-22 and Hy4T4 in P. contorta and Pseudomonas sp. Hy4T4 and Stenotrophomonas in P. banksiana, reduced antagonistic effects by Aspergillus and Trichoderma resulting in more larvae and longer ovipositional and larval galleries. These effects were not selective, as bacteria also reduced beneficial effects by symbionts in both host species. Interestingly, Bacillus enhanced antagonistic effects by Aspergillus in both hosts. These results demonstrate that bacteria influence brood development of bark beetles in host tissue. They also suggest that climate-driven range expansion of D. ponderosae through the boreal forest will not be significantly constrained by requirements of, or interactions among, its microbial associates.
Small molecules produced by Actinobacteria have played a prominent role in both drug discovery and organic chemistry. As part of a larger study of the actinobacterial symbionts of fungus-growing ants, we discovered a small family of three previously unreported piperazic acid-containing cyclic depsipeptides, gerumycins A-C. The gerumycins are slightly smaller versions of dentigerumycin, a cyclic depsipeptide that selectively inhibits a common fungal pathogen, Escovopsis. We had previously identified this molecule from a Pseudonocardia associated with Apterostigma dentigerum, and now we report the molecule from an associate of the more highly derived ant Trachymyrmex cornetzi. The three previously unidentified compounds, gerumycins A-C, have essentially identical structures and were produced by two different symbiotic Pseudonocardia spp. from ants in the genus Apterostigma found in both Panama and Costa Rica. To understand the similarities and differences in the biosynthetic pathways that produced these closely related molecules, the genomes of the three producing Pseudonocardia were sequenced and the biosynthetic gene clusters identified. This analysis revealed that dramatically different biosynthetic architectures, including genomic islands, a plasmid, and the use of spatially separated genetic loci, can lead to molecules with virtually identical core structures. A plausible evolutionary model that unifies these disparate architectures is presented.
No abstract available.
Leaf-cutter ants are prolific and conspicuous constituents of Neotropical ecosystems that derive energy from specialized fungus gardens they cultivate using prodigious amounts of foliar biomass. The basidiomycetous cultivar of the ants, Leucoagaricus gongylophorus, produces specialized hyphal swellings called gongylidia that serve as the primary food source of ant colonies. Gongylidia also contain plant biomass-degrading enzymes that become concentrated in ant digestive tracts and are deposited within fecal droplets onto fresh foliar material as ants incorporate it into the fungus garden. Although the enzymes concentrated by L. gongylophorus within gongylidia are thought to be critical to the initial degradation of plant biomass, only a few enzymes present in these hyphal swellings have been identified. Here we use proteomic methods to identify proteins present in the gongylidia of three Atta cephalotes colonies. Our results demonstrate that a diverse but consistent set of enzymes is present in gongylidia, including numerous plant biomass-degrading enzymes likely involved in the degradation of polysaccharides, plant toxins, and proteins. Overall, gongylidia contained over three quarters of all biomass-degrading enzymes identified in the L. gongylophorus genome, demonstrating that the majority of the enzymes produced by this fungus for biomass breakdown are ingested by the ants. We also identify a set of 40 of these enzymes enriched in gongylidia compared to whole fungus garden samples, suggesting that certain enzymes may be particularly important in the initial degradation of foliar material. Our work sheds light on the complex interplay between leaf-cutter ants and their fungal symbiont that allows for the host insects to occupy an herbivorous niche by indirectly deriving energy from plant biomass.
Microbial symbionts provide benefits that contribute to the ecology and fitness of host plants and animals. Therefore, the evolutionary success of plants and animals fundamentally depends on long-term maintenance of beneficial associations. Most work investigating coevolution and symbiotic maintenance has focused on species-level associations, and studies are lacking that assess the impact of bacterial strain diversity on symbiotic associations within a coevolutionary framework. Here, we demonstrate that fitness in mutualism varies depending on bacterial strain identity, and this is consistent with variation shaping phylogenetic patterns and maintenance through fitness benefits. Through genome sequencing of nine bacterial symbiont strains and cophylogenetic analysis, we demonstrate diversity among Xenorhabdus bovienii bacteria. Further, we identified cocladogenesis between Steinernema feltiae nematode hosts and their corresponding X. bovienii symbiont strains, indicating potential specificity within the association. To test the specificity, we performed laboratory crosses of nematode hosts with native and nonnative symbiont strains, which revealed that combinations with the native bacterial symbiont and closely related strains performed significantly better than those with more divergent symbionts. Through genomic analyses we also defined potential factors contributing to specificity between nematode hosts and bacterial symbionts. These results suggest that strain-level diversity (e.g., subspecies-level differences) in microbial symbionts can drive variation in the success of host-microbe associations, and this suggests that these differences in symbiotic success could contribute to maintenance of the symbiosis over an evolutionary time scale. Beneficial symbioses between microbes and plant or animal hosts are ubiquitous, and in these associations, microbial symbionts provide key benefits to their hosts. As such, host success is fundamentally dependent on long-term maintenance of beneficial associations. Prolonged association between partners in evolutionary time is expected to result in interactions in which only specific partners can fully support symbiosis. The contribution of bacterial strain diversity on specificity and coevolution in a beneficial symbiosis remains unclear. In this study, we demonstrate that strain-level differences in fitness benefits occur in beneficial host-microbe interactions, and this variation likely shapes phylogenetic patterns and symbiotic maintenance. This highlights that symbiont contributions to host biology can vary significantly based on very-fine-scale differences among members of a microbial species. Further, this work emphasizes the need for greater phylogenetic resolution when considering the causes and consequences of host-microbe interactions.
No abstract available.
The proton-translocating NADH:quinone oxidoreductase (complex I) is a multisubunit integral membrane enzyme found in the respiratory chains of both bacteria and eukaryotic organelles. Although much research has focused on the enzyme's central role in the mitochondrial respiratory chain, comparatively little is known about its role in the diverse energetic lifestyles of different bacteria. Here, we used a phylogenomic approach to better understand the distribution of complex I across bacteria, the evolution of this enzyme, and its potential roles in shaping the physiology of different bacterial groups. By surveying 970 representative bacterial genomes, we predict complex I to be present in ~50% of bacteria. While this includes bacteria with a wide range of energetic schemes, the presence of complex I is associated with specific lifestyles, including aerobic respiration and specific types of phototrophy (bacteria with only a type II reaction center). A phylogeny of bacterial complex I revealed five main clades of enzymes whose evolution is largely congruent with the evolution of the bacterial groups that encode complex I. A notable exception includes the gammaproteobacteria, whose members encode one of two distantly related complex I enzymes predicted to participate in different types of respiratory chains (aerobic versus anaerobic). Comparative genomic analyses suggest a broad role for complex I in reoxidizing NADH produced from various catabolic reactions, including the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle and fatty acid beta-oxidation. Together, these findings suggest diverse roles for complex I across bacteria and highlight the importance of this enzyme in shaping diverse physiologies across the bacterial domain. Living systems use conserved energy currencies, including a proton motive force (PMF), NADH, and ATP. The respiratory chain enzyme, complex I, connects these energy currencies by using NADH produced during nutrient breakdown to generate a PMF, which is subsequently used for ATP synthesis. Our goal is to better understand the role of complex I in bacteria, whose energetic diversity allows us to view its function in a range of biological contexts. We analyzed sequenced bacterial genomes to predict the presence, evolution, and function of complex I in bacteria. We identified five main classes of bacterial complex I and predict that different classes participate in different types of respiratory chains (aerobic and anaerobic). We also predict that complex I helps maintain a cellular redox state by reoxidizing NADH produced from central metabolism. Our findings suggest diverse roles for complex I in bacterial physiology, highlighting the need for future laboratory-based studies.
Microbial communities (microbiomes) are associated with almost all metazoans, including the honey bee Apis mellifera. Honey bees are social insects, maintaining complex hive systems composed of a variety of integral components including bees, comb, propolis, honey, and stored pollen. Given that the different components within hives can be physically separated and are nutritionally variable, we hypothesize that unique microbial communities may occur within the different microenvironments of honey bee colonies. To explore this hypothesis and to provide further insights into the microbiome of honey bees, we use a hybrid of fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) and phospholipid-derived fatty acid (PLFA) analysis to produce broad, lipid-based microbial community profiles of stored pollen, adults, pupae, honey, empty comb, and propolis for 11 honey bee hives. Averaging component lipid profiles by hive, we show that, in decreasing order, lipid markers representing fungi, Gram-negative bacteria, and Gram-positive bacteria have the highest relative abundances within honey bee colonies. Our lipid profiles reveal the presence of viable microbial communities in each of the six hive components sampled, with overall microbial community richness varying from lowest to highest in honey, comb, pupae, pollen, adults and propolis, respectively. Finally, microbial community lipid profiles were more similar when compared by component than by hive, location, or sampling year. Specifically, we found that individual hive components typically exhibited several dominant lipids and that these dominant lipids differ between components. Principal component and two-way clustering analyses both support significant grouping of lipids by hive component. Our findings indicate that in addition to the microbial communities present in individual workers, honey bee hives have resident microbial communities associated with different colony components.
Ant-plant mutualisms are conspicuous and ecologically important components of tropical ecosystems that remain largely unexplored in terms of insect-associated microbial communities. Recent work has revealed that ants in some ant-plant systems cultivate fungi (Chaetothyriales) within their domatia, which are fed to larvae. Using Pseudomyrmex penetrator/Tachigali sp. from French Guiana and Petalomyrmex phylax/Leonardoxa africana and Crematogaster margaritae/Keetia hispida, both from Cameroon, as models, we tested the hypothesis that ant-plant-fungus mutualisms co-occur with culturable Actinobacteria. Using selective media, we isolated 861 putative Actinobacteria from the three systems. All C. margaritae/K. hispida samples had culturable Actinobacteria with a mean of 10.0 colony forming units (CFUs) per sample, while 26 % of P. penetrator/Tachigali samples (mean CFUs 1.3) and 67 % of P. phylax/L. africana samples (mean CFUs 3.6) yielded Actinobacteria. The largest number of CFUs was obtained from P. penetrator workers, P. phylax alates, and C. margaritae pupae. 16S rRNA gene sequencing and phylogenetic analysis revealed the presence of four main clades of Streptomyces and one clade of Nocardioides within these three ant-plant mutualisms. Streptomyces with antifungal properties were isolated from all three systems, suggesting that they could serve as protective symbionts, as found in other insects. In addition, a number of isolates from a clade of Streptomyces associated with P. phylax/L. africana and C. margaritae/K. hispida were capable of degrading cellulose, suggesting that Streptomyces in these systems may serve a nutritional role. Repeated isolation of particular clades of Actinobacteria from two geographically distant locations supports these isolates as residents in ant-plant-fungi niches.
We report a preliminary functional and complete structural characterization of a highly unusual geldanamycin analog, natalamycin A, that was isolated from Streptomyces strain M56 recovered from a South African nest of Macrotermes natalensis termites. Bioassay-guided fractionation based on antifungal activity led to the isolation of natalamycin A, and a combination of NMR spectroscopy and X-ray crystallographic analysis, including highly-accurate quantum-chemical NMR calculations on the largest and most conformationally-flexible system to date, revealed natalamycin A's three-dimensional solid- and solution-state structure. This structure along with the structures of related compounds isolated from the same source suggest a geldanamycin-like biosynthetic pathway with unusual post-PKS modifications.
The ability to cultivate food is an innovation that has produced some of the most successful ecological strategies on the planet. Although most well recognized in humans, where agriculture represents a defining feature of civilization, species of ants, beetles, and termites have also independently evolved symbioses with fungi that they cultivate for food. Despite occurring across divergent insect and fungal lineages, the fungivorous niches of these insects are remarkably similar, indicating convergent evolution toward this successful ecological strategy. Here, we characterize the microbiota of ants, beetles, and termites engaged in nutritional symbioses with fungi to define the bacterial groups associated with these prominent herbivores and forest pests. Using culture-independent techniques and the in silico reconstruction of 37 composite genomes of dominant community members, we demonstrate that different insect-fungal symbioses that collectively shape ecosystems worldwide have highly similar bacterial microbiotas comprised primarily of the genera Enterobacter, Rahnella, and Pseudomonas. Although these symbioses span three orders of insects and two phyla of fungi, we show that they are associated with bacteria sharing high whole-genome nucleotide identity. Due to the fine-scale correspondence of the bacterial microbiotas of insects engaged in fungal symbioses, our findings indicate that this represents an example of convergence of entire host-microbe complexes. The cultivation of fungi for food is a behavior that has evolved independently in ants, beetles, and termites and has enabled many species of these insects to become ecologically important and widely distributed herbivores and forest pests. Although the primary fungal cultivars of these insects have been studied for decades, comparatively little is known of their bacterial microbiota. In this study, we show that diverse fungus-growing insects are associated with a common bacterial community composed of the same dominant members. Furthermore, by demonstrating that many of these bacteria have high whole-genome similarity across distantly related insect hosts that reside thousands of miles apart, we show that these bacteria are an important and underappreciated feature of diverse fungus-growing insects. Because of the similarities in the agricultural lifestyles of these insects, this is an example of convergence between both the life histories of the host insects and their symbiotic microbiota.
Actinobacteria in the genus Streptomyces are critical players in microbial communities that decompose complex carbohydrates in the soil, and these bacteria have recently been implicated in the deconstruction of plant polysaccharides for some herbivorous insects. Despite the importance of Streptomyces to carbon cycling, the extent of their plant biomass-degrading ability remains largely unknown. In this study, we compared four strains of Streptomyces isolated from insect herbivores that attack pine trees: DpondAA-B6 (SDPB6) from the mountain pine beetle, SPB74 from the southern pine beetle, and SirexAA-E (SACTE) and SirexAA-G from the woodwasp, Sirex noctilio. Biochemical analysis of secreted enzymes demonstrated that only two of these strains, SACTE and SDPB6, were efficient at degrading plant biomass. Genomic analyses indicated that SACTE and SDPB6 are closely related and that they share similar compositions of carbohydrate-active enzymes. Genome-wide proteomic and transcriptomic analyses revealed that the major exocellulases (GH6 and GH48), lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (AA10), and mannanases (GH5) were conserved and secreted by both organisms, while the secreted endocellulases (GH5 and GH9 versus GH9 and GH12) were from diverged enzyme families. Together, these data identify two phylogenetically related insect-associated Streptomyces strains with high biomass-degrading activity and characterize key enzymatic similarities and differences used by these organisms to deconstruct plant biomass.
Leaf-cutter ants are dominant herbivores in ecosystems throughout the Neotropics that feed on fungus gardens cultivated on fresh foliar biomass. Although recent investigations have shed light on how plant biomass is degraded in fungus gardens, the cycling of nutrients that takes place in these specialized microbial ecosystems is still not well understood. Here, using metabolomic and metaproteomic techniques, we examine the dynamics of nutrient turnover in these gardens. Our results reveal that numerous free amino acids and sugars are depleted throughout the process of biomass degradation, indicating that easily accessible nutrients from plant material are readily consumed by microbes in these ecosystems. Accumulation of cellobiose and lignin derivatives near the end of the degradation process is consistent with previous characterization of lignocellulases produced by the fungal cultivar of the ants. Our results also suggest that ureides may be an important source of nitrogen in fungus gardens, especially during nitrogen-limiting conditions. No free arginine was detected in our metabolomic experiments despite evidence that the host ants cannot produce this amino acid, suggesting that biosynthesis of this metabolite may be tightly regulated in fungus gardens. These results provide new insights into microbial community-level processes that underlie this important ant-fungus symbiosis.
Understanding the diversity of lignocellulose-degrading enzymes in nature will provide insights for the improvement of cellulolytic enzyme cocktails used in the biofuels industry. Two families of enzymes, fungal AA9 and bacterial AA10, have recently been characterized as crystalline cellulose or chitin-cleaving lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs). Here we analyze the sequences, structures, and evolution of LPMOs to understand the factors that may influence substrate specificity both within and between these enzyme families. Comparative analysis of sequences, solved structures, and homology models from AA9 and AA10 LPMO families demonstrated that, although these two LPMO families are highly conserved, structurally they have minimal sequence similarity outside the active site residues. Phylogenetic analysis of the AA10 family identified clades with putative chitinolytic and cellulolytic activities. Estimation of the rate of synonymous versus non-synonymous substitutions (dN/dS) within two major AA10 subclades showed distinct selective pressures between putative cellulolytic genes (subclade A) and CBP21-like chitinolytic genes (subclade D). Estimation of site-specific selection demonstrated that changes in the active sites were strongly negatively selected in all subclades. Furthermore, all codons in the subclade D had dN/dS values of less than 0.7, whereas codons in the cellulolytic subclade had dN/dS values of greater than 1.5. Positively selected codons were enriched at sites localized on the surface of the protein adjacent to the active site. The structural similarity but absence of significant sequence similarity between AA9 and AA10 families suggests that these enzyme families share an ancient ancestral protein. Combined analysis of amino acid sites under Darwinian selection and structural homology modeling identified a subclade of AA10 with diversifying selection at different surfaces, potentially used for cellulose-binding and protein-protein interactions. Together, these data indicate that AA10 LPMOs are under selection to change their function, which may optimize cellulolytic activity. This work provides a phylogenetic basis for identifying and classifying additional cellulolytic or chitinolytic LPMOs.
Stable associations between partners over time are critical for the evolution of mutualism. Hosts employ a variety of mechanisms to maintain specificity with bacterial associates. Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants farm a fungal cultivar as their primary nutrient source. These ants also carry a Pseudonocardia Actinobacteria exosymbiont on their bodies that produces antifungal compounds that help inhibit specialized parasites of the ants' fungal garden. Major workers emerge from their pupal cases (eclose) symbiont-free, but exhibit visible Actinobacterial coverage within 14 days post-eclosion. Using subcolony experiments, we investigate exosymbiont transmission within Acromyrmex colonies. We found successful transmission to newly eclosed major workers fostered by major workers with visible Actinobacteria in all cases (100% acquiring, n = 19). In contrast, newly eclosed major workers reared without exosymbiont-carrying major workers did not acquire visible Actinobacteria (0% acquiring, n = 73). We further show that the majority of ants exposed to major workers with exosymbionts within 2 hours of eclosion acquired bacteria (60.7% acquiring, n = 28), while normal acquisition did not occur when exposure occurred later than 2 hours post-eclosion (0% acquiring, n = 18). Our findings show that transmission of exosymbionts to newly eclosed major workers occurs through interactions with exosymbiont-covered workers within a narrow time window after eclosion. This mode of transmission likely helps ensure the defensive function within colonies, as well as specificity and partner fidelity in the ant-bacterium association.
β-Mannanase SACTE_2347 from cellulolytic Streptomyces sp. SirexAA-E is abundantly secreted into the culture medium during growth on cellulosic materials. The enzyme is composed of domains from the glycoside hydrolase family 5 (GH5), fibronectin type-III (Fn3), and carbohydrate binding module family 2 (CBM2). After secretion, the enzyme is proteolyzed into three different, catalytically active variants with masses of 53, 42 and 34 kDa corresponding to the intact protein, loss of the CBM2 domain, or loss of both the Fn3 and CBM2 domains. The three variants had identical N-termini starting with Ala51, and the positions of specific proteolytic reactions in the linker sequences separating the three domains were identified. To conduct biochemical and structural characterizations, the natural proteolytic variants were reproduced by cloning and heterologously expressed in Escherichia coli. Each SACTE_2347 variant hydrolyzed only β-1,4 mannosidic linkages, and also reacted with pure mannans containing partial galactosyl- and/or glucosyl substitutions. Examination of the X-ray crystal structure of the GH5 domain of SACTE_2347 suggests that two loops adjacent to the active site channel, which have differences in position and length relative to other closely related mannanases, play a role in producing the observed substrate selectivity.
As increased antibiotic resistance erodes the efficacy of currently used drugs, the need for new candidates with therapeutic potential grows. Although the majority of antibiotics in clinical use originated from natural products, mostly from environmental actinomycetes, high rediscovery rates, among other factors, have diminished the enthusiasm for continued exploration of this historically important source. Several well-studied insect agricultural systems have bacterial symbionts that have evolved to produce small molecules that suppress environmental pathogens. These molecules represent an underexplored reservoir of potentially useful antibiotics. This report describes the multilateral symbioses common to insect agricultural systems, the general strategy used for antibiotic discovery and pertinent examples from three farming systems: fungus-farming ants, southern pine beetles (SPBs) and fungus-growing termites.
Chloroplast sequence contamination in 16S ribosomal RNA gene (16S) analyses can be particularly problematic when sampling microbial communities in plants and folivorous arthropods. We previously encountered high levels of plastid contamination in herbivorous insect samples when we used the predominant 454 pyrosequencing 16S methodologies described in the literature. 799F, a primer previously found to exclude chloroplast sequences, was modified to enhance its efficacy, and we describe, in detail, our methodology throughout amplicon pyrosequencing. Thirteen versions of 799F were assessed for the exclusion of chloroplast sequences from our samples. We found that a shift in the mismatch between 799F and chloroplast 16S resulted in significant reduction of chloroplast reads. Our results also indicate that amplifying sequences from environmental samples in a two-step PCR process, with the addition of the multiplex identifiers and 454 adapters in a second round of PCR, further improved primer specificity. Primers that included 3' phosphorothioate bonds, which were designed to block primer degradation, did not amplify consistently across samples. The different forward primers do not appear to bias the bacterial communities detected. We provide a methodological framework for reducing chloroplast reads in high-throughput sequencing data sets that can be applied to a number of environmental samples and sequencing techniques.
Genomes of eusocial insects code for dramatic examples of phenotypic plasticity and social organization. We compared the genomes of seven ants, the honeybee, and various solitary insects to examine whether eusocial lineages share distinct features of genomic organization. Each ant lineage contains ∼4000 novel genes, but only 64 of these genes are conserved among all seven ants. Many gene families have been expanded in ants, notably those involved in chemical communication (e.g., desaturases and odorant receptors). Alignment of the ant genomes revealed reduced purifying selection compared with Drosophila without significantly reduced synteny. Correspondingly, ant genomes exhibit dramatic divergence of noncoding regulatory elements; however, extant conserved regions are enriched for novel noncoding RNAs and transcription factor-binding sites. Comparison of orthologous gene promoters between eusocial and solitary species revealed significant regulatory evolution in both cis (e.g., Creb) and trans (e.g., fork head) for nearly 2000 genes, many of which exhibit phenotypic plasticity. Our results emphasize that genomic changes can occur remarkably fast in ants, because two recently diverged leaf-cutter ant species exhibit faster accumulation of species-specific genes and greater divergence in regulatory elements compared with other ants or Drosophila. Thus, while the "socio-genomes" of ants and the honeybee are broadly characterized by a pervasive pattern of divergence in gene composition and regulation, they preserve lineage-specific regulatory features linked to eusociality. We propose that changes in gene regulation played a key role in the origins of insect eusociality, whereas changes in gene composition were more relevant for lineage-specific eusocial adaptations.
The mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae, is a subcortical herbivore native to western North America that can kill healthy conifers by overcoming host tree defenses, which consist largely of high terpene concentrations. The mechanisms by which these beetles contend with toxic compounds are not well understood. Here, we explore a component of the hypothesis that beetle-associated bacterial symbionts contribute to the ability of D. ponderosae to overcome tree defenses by assisting with terpene detoxification. Such symbionts may facilitate host tree transitions during range expansions currently being driven by climate change. For example, this insect has recently breached the historical geophysical barrier of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, providing access to näive tree hosts and unprecedented connectivity to eastern forests. We use culture-independent techniques to describe the bacterial community associated with D. ponderosae beetles and their galleries from their historical host, Pinus contorta, and their more recent host, hybrid P. contorta-Pinus banksiana. We show that these communities are enriched with genes involved in terpene degradation compared with other plant biomass-processing microbial communities. These pine beetle microbial communities are dominated by members of the genera Pseudomonas, Rahnella, Serratia, and Burkholderia, and the majority of genes involved in terpene degradation belong to these genera. Our work provides the first metagenome of bacterial communities associated with a bark beetle and is consistent with a potential microbial contribution to detoxification of tree defenses needed to survive the subcortical environment.
Sphingomonads comprise a physiologically versatile group within the Alphaproteobacteria that includes strains of interest for biotechnology, human health, and environmental nutrient cycling. In this study, we compared 26 sphingomonad genome sequences to gain insight into their ecology, metabolic versatility, and environmental adaptations. Our multilocus phylogenetic and average amino acid identity (AAI) analyses confirm that Sphingomonas, Sphingobium, Sphingopyxis, and Novosphingobium are well-resolved monophyletic groups with the exception of Sphingomonas sp. strain SKA58, which we propose belongs to the genus Sphingobium. Our pan-genomic analysis of sphingomonads reveals numerous species-specific open reading frames (ORFs) but few signatures of genus-specific cores. The organization and coding potential of the sphingomonad genomes appear to be highly variable, and plasmid-mediated gene transfer and chromosome-plasmid recombination, together with prophage- and transposon-mediated rearrangements, appear to play prominent roles in the genome evolution of this group. We find that many of the sphingomonad genomes encode numerous oxygenases and glycoside hydrolases, which are likely responsible for their ability to degrade various recalcitrant aromatic compounds and polysaccharides, respectively. Many of these enzymes are encoded on megaplasmids, suggesting that they may be readily transferred between species. We also identified enzymes putatively used for the catabolism of sulfonate and nitroaromatic compounds in many of the genomes, suggesting that plant-based compounds or chemical contaminants may be sources of nitrogen and sulfur. Many of these sphingomonads appear to be adapted to oligotrophic environments, but several contain genomic features indicative of host associations. Our work provides a basis for understanding the ecological strategies employed by sphingomonads and their role in environmental nutrient cycling.
Plants represent a large reservoir of organic carbon comprised primarily of recalcitrant polymers that most metazoans are unable to deconstruct. Many herbivores gain access to nutrients in this material indirectly by associating with microbial symbionts, and leaf-cutter ants are a paradigmatic example. These ants use fresh foliar biomass as manure to cultivate gardens composed primarily of Leucoagaricus gongylophorus, a basidiomycetous fungus that produces specialized hyphal swellings that serve as a food source for the host ant colony. Although leaf-cutter ants are conspicuous herbivores that contribute substantially to carbon turnover in Neotropical ecosystems, the process through which plant biomass is degraded in their fungus gardens is not well understood. Here we present the first draft genome of L. gongylophorus, and, using genomic and metaproteomic tools, we investigate its role in lignocellulose degradation in the gardens of both Atta cephalotes and Acromyrmex echinatior leaf-cutter ants. We show that L. gongylophorus produces a diversity of lignocellulases in ant gardens and is likely the primary driver of plant biomass degradation in these ecosystems. We also show that this fungus produces distinct sets of lignocellulases throughout the different stages of biomass degradation, including numerous cellulases and laccases that likely play an important role in lignocellulose degradation. Our study provides a detailed analysis of plant biomass degradation in leaf-cutter ant fungus gardens and insight into the enzymes underlying the symbiosis between these dominant herbivores and their obligate fungal cultivar.
The high-throughput annotation of open reading frames (ORFs) required by modern genome sequencing projects necessitates computational protocols that sometimes annotate orthologous ORFs inconsistently. Such inconsistencies hinder comparative analyses by non-uniformly extending or truncating 5' and/or 3' sequence ends, causing ORFs that are in fact identical to artificially diverge. Whereas strategies exist to correct such inconsistencies during whole-genome annotation, equivalent software designed to correct subsets of these data without genome reannotation is lacking. We therefore developed ORFcor, which corrects annotation inconsistencies using consensus start and stop positions derived from sets of closely related orthologs. ORFcor corrects inconsistent ORF annotations in diverse test datasets with specificities and sensitivities approaching 100% when sufficiently related orthologs (e.g., from the same taxonomic family) are available for comparison. The ORFcor package is implemented in Perl, multithreaded to handle large datasets, includes related scripts to facilitate high-throughput phylogenomic analyses, and is freely available at www.currielab.wisc.edu/downloads.html.
Serratia sp. strain FGI 94 was isolated from a fungus garden of the leaf-cutter ant Atta colombica. Analysis of its 4.86-Mbp chromosome will help advance our knowledge of symbiotic interactions and plant biomass degradation in this ancient ant-fungus mutualism.
Fungus-growing ants associate with multiple symbiotic microbes, including Actinobacteria for production of antibiotics. The best studied of these bacteria are within the genus Pseudonocardia, which in most fungus-growing ants are conspicuously visible on the external cuticle of workers. However, given that fungus-growing ants in the genus Atta do not carry visible Actinobacteria on their cuticle, it is unclear if this genus engages in the symbiosis with Pseudonocardia. Here we explore whether improving culturing techniques can allow for successful isolation of Pseudonocardia from Atta cephalotes leaf-cutting ants. We obtained Pseudonocardia from 9 of 11 isolation method/colony component combinations from all 5 colonies intensively sampled. The most efficient technique was bead-beating workers in phosphate buffer solution, then plating the suspension on carboxymethylcellulose medium. Placing these strains in a fungus-growing ant-associated Pseudonocardia phylogeny revealed that while some strains grouped with clades of Pseudonocardia associated with other genera of fungus-growing ants, a large portion of the isolates fell into two novel phylogenetic clades previously not identified from this ant-microbe symbiosis. Our findings suggest that Pseudonocardia may be associated with Atta fungus-growing ants, potentially internalized, and that localizing the symbiont and exploring its role is necessary to shed further light on the association.
Streptomyces are best known for producing antimicrobial secondary metabolites, but they are also recognized for their contributions to biomass utilization. Despite their importance to carbon cycling in terrestrial ecosystems, our understanding of the cellulolytic ability of Streptomyces is currently limited to a few soil-isolates. Here, we demonstrate the biomass-deconstructing capability of Streptomyces sp. SirexAA-E (ActE), an aerobic bacterium associated with the invasive pine-boring woodwasp Sirex noctilio. When grown on plant biomass, ActE secretes a suite of enzymes including endo- and exo-cellulases, CBM33 polysaccharide-monooxygenases, and hemicellulases. Genome-wide transcriptomic and proteomic analyses, and biochemical assays have revealed the key enzymes used to deconstruct crystalline cellulose, other pure polysaccharides, and biomass. The mixture of enzymes obtained from growth on biomass has biomass-degrading activity comparable to a cellulolytic enzyme cocktail from the fungus Trichoderma reesei, and thus provides a compelling example of high cellulolytic capacity in an aerobic bacterium.
The Enterobacteriaceae bacterium strain FGI 57 was isolated from a fungus garden of the leaf-cutter ant Atta colombica. Analysis of its single 4.76-Mbp chromosome will shed light on community dynamics and plant biomass degradation in ant fungus gardens.
Fungus-growing ants (Attini) are part of a complex symbiosis with Basidiomycetous fungi, which the ants cultivate for food, Ascomycetous fungal pathogens (Escovopsis), which parasitize cultivars, and Actinobacteria, which produce antibiotic compounds that suppress pathogen growth. Earlier studies that have characterized the association between attine ants and their bacterial symbionts have employed broad phylogenetic approaches, with conclusions ranging from a diffuse coevolved mutualism to no specificity being reported. However, the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution proposes that coevolved interactions likely occur at a level above local populations but within species. Moreover, the scale of population subdivision is likely to impact coevolutionary dynamics. Here, we describe the population structure of bacteria associated with the attine Apterostigma dentigerum across Central America using multilocus sequence typing (MLST) of six housekeeping genes. The majority (90%) of bacteria that were isolated grouped into a single clade within the genus Pseudonocardia. In contrast to studies that have suggested that Pseudonocardia dispersal is high and therefore unconstrained by ant associations, we found highly structured ([Formula: see text]) and dispersal-limited (i.e., significant isolation by distance; [Formula: see text], [Formula: see text]) populations over even a relatively small scale (e.g., within the Panama Canal Zone). Estimates of recombination versus mutation were uncharacteristically low compared with estimates for free-living Actinobacteria (e.g., [Formula: see text] in La Selva, Costa Rica), which suggests that recombination is constrained by association with ant hosts. Furthermore, Pseudonocardia population structure was correlated with that of Escovopsis species ([Formula: see text], [Formula: see text]), supporting the bacteria's role in disease suppression. Overall, the population dynamics of symbiotic Pseudonocardia are more consistent with a specialized mutualistic association than with recently proposed models of low specificity and frequent horizontal acquisition.
Three new members of the angucycline class of antibiotics, pseudonocardones A-C (1-3), along with the known antibiotics 6-deoxy-8-O-methylrabelomycin (4) and X-14881 E (5) have been isolated from the culture of a Pseudonocardia strain associated with the fungus-growing ant Apterostigma dentigerum. Compounds 4 and 5 showed antibiotic activity against Bacillus subtilis 3610 and liver-stage Plasmodium berghei, while 1-3 were inactive or only weakly active in a variety of biological assays. Compound 5 also showed moderate cytotoxicity against HepG2 cells.
Loss of traits can dramatically alter the fate of species. Evidence is rapidly accumulating that the prevalence of trait loss is grossly underestimated. New findings demonstrate that traits can be lost without affecting the external phenotype, provided the lost function is compensated for by species interactions. This is important because trait loss can tighten the ecological relationship between partners, affecting the maintenance of species interactions. Here, we develop a new perspective on so-called `compensated trait loss' and how this type of trait loss may affect the evolutionary dynamics between interacting organisms. We argue that: (1) the frequency of compensated trait loss is currently underestimated because it can go unnoticed as long as ecological interactions are maintained; (2) by analysing known cases of trait loss, specific factors promoting compensated trait loss can be identified and (3) genomic sequencing is a key way forwards in detecting compensated trait loss. We present a comprehensive literature survey showing that compensated trait loss is taxonomically widespread, can involve essential traits, and often occurs as replicated evolutionary events. Despite its hidden nature, compensated trait loss is important in directing evolutionary dynamics of ecological relationships and has the potential to change facultative ecological interactions into obligatory ones.
Herbivores gain access to nutrients stored in plant biomass largely by harnessing the metabolic activities of microbes. Leaf-cutter ants of the genus Atta are a hallmark example; these dominant neotropical herbivores cultivate symbiotic fungus gardens on large quantities of fresh plant forage. As the external digestive system of the ants, fungus gardens facilitate the production and sustenance of millions of workers. Using metagenomic and metaproteomic techniques, we characterize the bacterial diversity and physiological potential of fungus gardens from two species of Atta. Our analysis of over 1.2 Gbp of community metagenomic sequence and three 16S pyrotag libraries reveals that in addition to harboring the dominant fungal crop, these ecosystems contain abundant populations of Enterobacteriaceae, including the genera Enterobacter, Pantoea, Klebsiella, Citrobacter and Escherichia. We show that these bacterial communities possess genes associated with lignocellulose degradation and diverse biosynthetic pathways, suggesting that they play a role in nutrient cycling by converting the nitrogen-poor forage of the ants into B-vitamins, amino acids and other cellular components. Our metaproteomic analysis confirms that bacterial glycosyl hydrolases and proteins with putative biosynthetic functions are produced in both field-collected and laboratory-reared colonies. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that fungus gardens are specialized fungus-bacteria communities that convert plant material into energy for their ant hosts. Together with recent investigations into the microbial symbionts of vertebrates, our work underscores the importance of microbial communities in the ecology and evolution of herbivorous metazoans.
Microtermolides A (1) and B (2) were isolated from a Streptomyces sp. strain associated with fungus-growing termites. The structures of 1 and 2 were determined by 1D- and 2D-NMR spectroscopy and high-resolution mass spectrometry. Structural elucidation of 1 led to the re-examination of the structure originally proposed for vinylamycin (3). Based on a comparison of predicted and experimental (1)H and (13)C NMR chemical shifts, we propose that vinylamycin's structure be revised from 3 to 4.
In fungus-growing termites, fungi of the subgenus Pseudoxylaria threaten colony health through substrate competition with the termite fungus (Termitomyces). The potential mechanisms with which termites suppress Pseudoxylaria have remained unknown. Here we explore if Actinobacteria potentially play a role as defensive symbionts against Pseudoxylaria in fungus-growing termites. We sampled for Actinobacteria from 30 fungus-growing termite colonies, spanning the three main termite genera and two geographically distant sites. Our isolations yielded 360 Actinobacteria, from which we selected subsets for morphological (288 isolates, grouped in 44 morphotypes) and for 16S rRNA (35 isolates, spanning the majority of morphotypes) characterisation. Actinobacteria were found throughout all sampled nests and colony parts and, phylogenetically, they are interspersed with Actinobacteria from origins other than fungus-growing termites, indicating lack of specificity. Antibiotic-activity screening of 288 isolates against the fungal cultivar and competitor revealed that most of the Actinobacteria-produced molecules with antifungal activity. A more detailed bioassay on 53 isolates, to test the specificity of antibiotics, showed that many Actinobacteria inhibit both Pseudoxylaria and Termitomyces, and that the cultivar fungus generally is more susceptible to inhibition than the competitor. This suggests that either defensive symbionts are not present in the system or that they, if present, represent a subset of the community isolated. If so, the antibiotics must be used in a targeted fashion, being applied to specific areas by the termites. We describe the first discovery of an assembly of antibiotic-producing Actinobacteria occurring in fungus-growing termite nests. However, due to the diversity found, and the lack of both phylogenetic and bioactivity specificity, further work is necessary for a better understanding of the putative role of antibiotic-producing bacteria in the fungus-growing termite mutualistic system.
Ongoing technological advances in genome sequencing are allowing bacterial genomes to be sequenced at ever-lower cost. However, nearly all of these new techniques concomitantly decrease genome quality, primarily due to the inability of their relatively short read lengths to bridge certain genomic regions, e.g., those containing repeats. Fragmentation of predicted open reading frames (ORFs) is one possible consequence of this decreased quality. In this study we quantify ORF fragmentation in draft microbial genomes and its effect on annotation efficacy, and we propose a solution to ameliorate this problem. A survey of draft-quality genomes in GenBank revealed that fragmented ORFs comprised > 80% of the predicted ORFs in some genomes, and that increased fragmentation correlated with decreased genome assembly quality. In a more thorough analysis of 25 Streptomyces genomes, fragmentation was especially enriched in some protein classes with repeating, multi-modular structures such as polyketide synthases, non-ribosomal peptide synthetases and serine/threonine kinases. Overall, increased genome fragmentation correlated with increased false-negative Pfam and COG annotation rates and increased false-positive KEGG annotation rates. The false-positive KEGG annotation rate could be ameliorated by linking fragmented ORFs using their orthologs in related genomes. Whereas this strategy successfully linked up to 46% of the total ORF fragments in some genomes, its sensitivity appeared to depend heavily on the depth of sampling of a particular taxon's variable genome. Draft microbial genomes contain many ORF fragments. Where these correspond to the same gene they have particular potential to confound comparative gene content analyses. Given our findings, and the rapid increase in the number of microbial draft quality genomes, we suggest that accounting for gene fragmentation and its associated biases is important when designing comparative genomic projects.
Fungus-growing ants display symbiont preference in behavioral assays, both towards the fungus they cultivate for food and Actinobacteria they maintain on their cuticle for antibiotic production against parasites. These Actinobacteria, genus Pseudonocardia Henssen (Pseudonocardiacea: Actinomycetales), help defend the ants' fungal mutualist from specialized parasites. In Acromyrmex Mayr (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) leaf-cutting ants, individual colonies maintain either a single or a few strains of Pseudonocardia, and the symbiont is primarily vertically transmitted between generations by colony-founding queens. A recent report found that Acromyrmex workers are able to differentiate between their native Pseudonocardia strain and non-native strains isolated from sympatric or allopatric Acromyrmex species, and show preference for their native strain. Here we explore worker preference when presented with two non-native strains, elucidating the role of genetic distance on preference between strains and Pseudonocardia origin. Our findings suggest that ants tend to prefer bacteria more closely related to their native bacterium and that genetic similarity is probably more important than whether symbionts are ant-associated or free-living. Preliminary findings suggest that when continued exposure to a novel Pseudonocardia strain occurs, ant symbiont preference is potentially adaptable, with colonies apparently being able to alter symbiont preference over time. These findings are discussed in relation to the role of adaptive recognition, potential ecological flexibility in symbiont preference, and more broadly, in relation to self versus non-self recognition.
Streptomyces sp. strain Wigar10 was isolated from a surface-sterilized garlic bulb (Allium sativum var. Purple Stripe). Its genome encodes several novel secondary metabolite biosynthetic gene clusters and provides a genetic basis for further investigation of this strain's chemical biology and potential for interaction with its garlic host.
Leaf-cutting ants are one of the main herbivores of the Neotropics, where they represent an important agricultural pest. These ants are particularly difficult to control because of the complex network of microbial symbionts. Leaf-cutting ants have traditionally been controlled through pesticide application, but there is a need for alternative, more environmentally friendly, control methods such as biological control. Potential promising biocontrol candidates include the microfungi Escovopsis spp. (anamorphic Hypocreales), which are specialized pathogens of the fungi the ants cultivate for food. These pathogens are suppressed through ant behaviors and ant-associated antibiotic-producing Actinobacteria. In order to be an effective biocontrol agent, Escovopsis has to overcome these defenses. Here, we evaluate, using microbial in vitro assays, whether defenses in the ant-cultivated fungus strain (Leucoagaricus sp.) and Actinobacteria from the ant pest Acromyrmex lundii have the potential to limit the use of Escovopsis in biocontrol. We also explore, for the first time, possible synergistic biocontrol between Escovopsis and the entomopathogenic fungus Lecanicillium lecanii. All strains of Escovopsis proved to overgrow A. lundii cultivar in less than 7 days, with the Escovopsis strain isolated from a different leaf-cutting ant species being the most efficient. Escovopsis challenged with a Streptomyces strain isolated from A. lundii did not exhibit significant growth inhibition. Both results are encouraging for the use of Escovopsis as a biocontrol agent. Although we found that L. lecanii can suppress the growth of the cultivar, it also had a negative impact on Escovopsis, making the success of simultaneous use of these two fungi for biocontrol of A. lundii questionable.
Sirex noctilio is an invasive wood-feeding wasp that threatens the world's commercial and natural pine forests. Successful tree colonization by this insect is contingent on the decline of host defenses and the ability to utilize the woody substrate as a source of energy. We explored its potential association with bacterial symbionts that may assist in nutrient acquisition via plant biomass deconstruction using growth assays, culture-dependent and -independent analysis of bacterial frequency of association and whole-genome analysis. We identified Streptomyces and γ-Proteobacteria that were each associated with 94% and 88% of wasps, respectively. Streptomyces isolates grew on all three cellulose substrates tested and across a range of pH 5.6 to 9. On the basis of whole-genome sequencing, three Streptomyces isolates have some of the highest proportions of genes predicted to encode for carbohydrate-active enzymes (CAZyme) of sequenced Actinobacteria. γ-Proteobacteria isolates grew on a cellulose derivative and a structurally diverse substrate, ammonia fiber explosion-treated corn stover, but not on microcrystalline cellulose. Analysis of the genome of a Pantoea isolate detected genes putatively encoding for CAZymes, the majority predicted to be active on hemicellulose and more simple sugars. We propose that a consortium of microorganisms, including the described bacteria and the fungal symbiont Amylostereum areolatum, has complementary functions for degrading woody substrates and that such degradation may assist in nutrient acquisition by S. noctilio, thus contributing to its ability to be established in forested habitats worldwide.
Streptomyces griseus strain XylebKG-1 is an insect-associated strain of the well-studied actinobacterial species S. griseus. Here, we present the genome of XylebKG-1 and discuss its similarity to the genome of S. griseus subsp. griseus NBRC13350. XylebKG-1 was isolated from the fungus-cultivating Xyleborinus saxesenii system. Given its similarity to free-living S. griseus subsp. griseus NBRC13350, comparative genomics will elucidate critical components of bacterial interactions with insects.
Fungus-growing ants (tribe Attini) engage in a mutualism with a fungus that serves as the ants' primary food source, but successful fungus cultivation is threatened by microfungal parasites (genus Escovopsis). Actinobacteria (genus Pseudonocardia) associate with most of the phylogenetic diversity of fungus-growing ants; are typically maintained on the cuticle of workers; and infection experiments, bioassay challenges and chemical analyses support a role of Pseudonocardia in defence against Escovopsis through antibiotic production. Here we generate a two-gene phylogeny for Pseudonocardia associated with 124 fungus-growing ant colonies, evaluate patterns of ant-Pseudonocardia specificity and test Pseudonocardia antibiotic activity towards Escovopsis. We show that Pseudonocardia associated with fungus-growing ants are not monophyletic: the ants have acquired free-living strains over the evolutionary history of the association. Nevertheless, our analysis reveals a significant pattern of specificity between clades of Pseudonocardia and groups of related fungus-growing ants. Furthermore, antibiotic assays suggest that despite Escovopsis being generally susceptible to inhibition by diverse Actinobacteria, the ant-derived Pseudonocardia inhibit Escovopsis more strongly than they inhibit other fungi, and are better at inhibiting this pathogen than most environmental Pseudonocardia strains tested. Our findings support a model that many fungus-growing ants maintain specialized Pseudonocardia symbionts that help with garden defence.
Recent studies have revealed several examples of intimate associations between insects and Actinobacteria, including the Southern Pine Beetle Dendroctonus frontalis and the Spruce Beetle Dendroctonus rufipennis. Here, we surveyed Streptomyces Actinobacteria co-occurring with 10 species of Dendroctonus bark beetles across the United States, using both phylogenetic and community ecology approaches. From these 10 species, and 19 other scolytine beetles that occur in the same trees, we obtained 154 Streptomyces-like isolates and generated 16S sequences from 134 of those. Confirmed 16S sequences of Streptomyces were binned into 36 distinct strains using a threshold of 0.2% sequence divergence. The 16S rDNA phylogeny of all isolates does not correlate with the distribution of strains among beetle species, localities, or parts of the beetles or their galleries. However, we identified three Streptomyces strains occurring repeatedly on Dendroctonus beetles and in their galleries. Identity of these isolates was corroborated using a house-keeping gene sequence (efTu). These strains are not confined to a certain species of beetle, locality, or part of the beetle or their galleries. However, their role as residents in the woodboring insect niche is supported by the repeated association of their 16S and efTu from across the continent, and also having been reported in studies of other subcortical insects.
Cellulosilyticum lentocellum DSM 5427 is an anaerobic, endospore-forming member of the Firmicutes. We describe the complete genome sequence of this cellulose-degrading bacterium, which was originally isolated from estuarine sediment of a river that received both domestic and paper mill waste. Comparative genomics of cellulolytic clostridia will provide insight into factors that influence degradation rates.
We report the draft genome sequence of the red harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus. The genome was sequenced using 454 pyrosequencing, and the current assembly and annotation were completed in less than 1 y. Analyses of conserved gene groups (more than 1,200 manually annotated genes to date) suggest a high-quality assembly and annotation comparable to recently sequenced insect genomes using Sanger sequencing. The red harvester ant is a model for studying reproductive division of labor, phenotypic plasticity, and sociogenomics. Although the genome of P. barbatus is similar to other sequenced hymenopterans (Apis mellifera and Nasonia vitripennis) in GC content and compositional organization, and possesses a complete CpG methylation toolkit, its predicted genomic CpG content differs markedly from the other hymenopterans. Gene networks involved in generating key differences between the queen and worker castes (e.g., wings and ovaries) show signatures of increased methylation and suggest that ants and bees may have independently co-opted the same gene regulatory mechanisms for reproductive division of labor. Gene family expansions (e.g., 344 functional odorant receptors) and pseudogene accumulation in chemoreception and P450 genes compared with A. mellifera and N. vitripennis are consistent with major life-history changes during the adaptive radiation of Pogonomyrmex spp., perhaps in parallel with the development of the North American deserts.
Ants are some of the most abundant and familiar animals on Earth, and they play vital roles in most terrestrial ecosystems. Although all ants are eusocial, and display a variety of complex and fascinating behaviors, few genomic resources exist for them. Here, we report the draft genome sequence of a particularly widespread and well-studied species, the invasive Argentine ant (Linepithema humile), which was accomplished using a combination of 454 (Roche) and Illumina sequencing and community-based funding rather than federal grant support. Manual annotation of >1,000 genes from a variety of different gene families and functional classes reveals unique features of the Argentine ant's biology, as well as similarities to Apis mellifera and Nasonia vitripennis. Distinctive features of the Argentine ant genome include remarkable expansions of gustatory (116 genes) and odorant receptors (367 genes), an abundance of cytochrome P450 genes (>110), lineage-specific expansions of yellow/major royal jelly proteins and desaturases, and complete CpG DNA methylation and RNAi toolkits. The Argentine ant genome contains fewer immune genes than Drosophila and Tribolium, which may reflect the prominent role played by behavioral and chemical suppression of pathogens. Analysis of the ratio of observed to expected CpG nucleotides for genes in the reproductive development and apoptosis pathways suggests higher levels of methylation than in the genome overall. The resources provided by this genome sequence will offer an abundance of tools for researchers seeking to illuminate the fascinating biology of this emerging model organism.
Fibrobacter succinogenes is an important member of the rumen microbial community that converts plant biomass into nutrients usable by its host. This bacterium, which is also one of only two cultivated species in its phylum, is an efficient and prolific degrader of cellulose. Specifically, it has a particularly high activity against crystalline cellulose that requires close physical contact with this substrate. However, unlike other known cellulolytic microbes, it does not degrade cellulose using a cellulosome or by producing high extracellular titers of cellulase enzymes. To better understand the biology of F. succinogenes, we sequenced the genome of the type strain S85 to completion. A total of 3,085 open reading frames were predicted from its 3.84 Mbp genome. Analysis of sequences predicted to encode for carbohydrate-degrading enzymes revealed an unusually high number of genes that were classified into 49 different families of glycoside hydrolases, carbohydrate binding modules (CBMs), carbohydrate esterases, and polysaccharide lyases. Of the 31 identified cellulases, none contain CBMs in families 1, 2, and 3, typically associated with crystalline cellulose degradation. Polysaccharide hydrolysis and utilization assays showed that F. succinogenes was able to hydrolyze a number of polysaccharides, but could only utilize the hydrolytic products of cellulose. This suggests that F. succinogenes uses its array of hemicellulose-degrading enzymes to remove hemicelluloses to gain access to cellulose. This is reflected in its genome, as F. succinogenes lacks many of the genes necessary to transport and metabolize the hydrolytic products of non-cellulose polysaccharides. The F. succinogenes genome reveals a bacterium that specializes in cellulose as its sole energy source, and provides insight into a novel strategy for cellulose degradation.
Identifying new sources for small molecule discovery is necessary to help mitigate the continuous emergence of antibiotic-resistance in pathogenic microbes. Recent studies indicate that one potentially rich source of novel natural products is Actinobacterial symbionts associated with social and solitary Hymenoptera. Here we test this possibility by examining two species of solitary mud dauber wasps, Sceliphron caementarium and Chalybion californicum. We performed enrichment isolations from 33 wasps and obtained more than 200 isolates of Streptomyces Actinobacteria. Chemical analyses of 15 of these isolates identified 11 distinct and structurally diverse secondary metabolites, including a novel polyunsaturated and polyoxygenated macrocyclic lactam, which we name sceliphrolactam. By pairing the 15 Streptomyces strains against a collection of fungi and bacteria, we document their antifungal and antibacterial activity. The prevalence and anti-microbial properties of Actinobacteria associated with these two solitary wasp species suggest the potential role of these Streptomyces as antibiotic-producing symbionts, potentially helping defend their wasp hosts from pathogenic microbes. Finding phylogenetically diverse and chemically prolific Actinobacteria from solitary wasps suggests that insect-associated Actinobacteria can provide a valuable source of novel natural products of pharmaceutical interest.
A previously unreported 26-membered polyene macrocyclic lactam, sceliphrolactam, was isolated from an actinomycete, Streptomyces sp., associated with the mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium. Sceliphrolactam's structure was determined by 1D- and 2D-NMR, MS, UV, and IR spectral analysis. Sceliphrolactam displays antifungal activity against amphotericin B-resistant Candida albicans (MIC = 4 μg/mL, 8.3 μM).
Leaf-cutter ants are one of the most important herbivorous insects in the Neotropics, harvesting vast quantities of fresh leaf material. The ants use leaves to cultivate a fungus that serves as the colony's primary food source. This obligate ant-fungus mutualism is one of the few occurrences of farming by non-humans and likely facilitated the formation of their massive colonies. Mature leaf-cutter ant colonies contain millions of workers ranging in size from small garden tenders to large soldiers, resulting in one of the most complex polymorphic caste systems within ants. To begin uncovering the genomic underpinnings of this system, we sequenced the genome of Atta cephalotes using 454 pyrosequencing. One prediction from this ant's lifestyle is that it has undergone genetic modifications that reflect its obligate dependence on the fungus for nutrients. Analysis of this genome sequence is consistent with this hypothesis, as we find evidence for reductions in genes related to nutrient acquisition. These include extensive reductions in serine proteases (which are likely unnecessary because proteolysis is not a primary mechanism used to process nutrients obtained from the fungus), a loss of genes involved in arginine biosynthesis (suggesting that this amino acid is obtained from the fungus), and the absence of a hexamerin (which sequesters amino acids during larval development in other insects). Following recent reports of genome sequences from other insects that engage in symbioses with beneficial microbes, the A. cephalotes genome provides new insights into the symbiotic lifestyle of this ant and advances our understanding of host-microbe symbioses.
Fungi in the genus Escovopsis are known only from the fungus gardens of attine ants. Previous work has established that these anamorphic fungi, allied with the Hypocreales, are specialized and potentially virulent parasites of the ancient mutualism between attine ants and their fungal cultivars. It is unclear whether the primary nutrient source for the pathogen is the mutualist fungal cultivar or the vegetative substrate placed on the gardens by the ants. Here, we determine whether Escovopsis weberi is a parasite of the fungal cultivar, a competitor for the leaf substrate, or both. Bioassays reveal that E. weberi exhibits rapid growth on pure cultivar and negligible growth on sterilized leaf fragments. Light microscopy examination of hyphalhyphal interactions between E. weberi and the ant fungal cultivar indicate that E. weberi, unlike invasive necrotrophs that always penetrate host hyphae, can secrete compounds that break down host mycelium before contact occurs. Thus, E. weberi is a necrotrophic parasite of the fungal cultivar of attine ants.
Erythropoietic and megakaryocytic programs are specified from multipotential progenitors by the transcription factor GATA1. FOG1, a GATA1-interaction partner, is critical for GATA1 function in several contexts by bringing multiple complexes into association with GATA1 to facilitate activation or repression of target genes. To further elucidate regulation of these associations by cellular and extracellular cues, we examined FOG1 for post-translational modifications. We found that FOG1 is SUMOylated and phosphorylated in erythroid cells in a differentiation-dependent manner. Removal of the SUMOylation sites in FOG1 does not impair nuclear localization, protein stability, or chromatin occupancy. However, SUMOylation of FOG1 modulates interactions with C-terminal binding protein family members, specifically promoting CTBP1 binding. Phosphorylation of FOG1 modulates SUMOylation and, therefore, indirectly regulates the CTBP interaction. Post-translational modification of FOG1 may contribute to control of co-occupancy by CTBP family members, the NuRD complex, and GATA1 at differentially regulated genes.
Herbivores can gain indirect access to recalcitrant carbon present in plant cell walls through symbiotic associations with lignocellulolytic microbes. A paradigmatic example is the leaf-cutter ant (Tribe: Attini), which uses fresh leaves to cultivate a fungus for food in specialized gardens. Using a combination of sugar composition analyses, metagenomics, and whole-genome sequencing, we reveal that the fungus garden microbiome of leaf-cutter ants is composed of a diverse community of bacteria with high plant biomass-degrading capacity. Comparison of this microbiome's predicted carbohydrate-degrading enzyme profile with other metagenomes shows closest similarity to the bovine rumen, indicating evolutionary convergence of plant biomass degrading potential between two important herbivorous animals. Genomic and physiological characterization of two dominant bacteria in the fungus garden microbiome provides evidence of their capacity to degrade cellulose. Given the recent interest in cellulosic biofuels, understanding how large-scale and rapid plant biomass degradation occurs in a highly evolved insect herbivore is of particular relevance for bioenergy.
Host-parasite associations are potentially shaped by evolutionary reciprocal selection dynamics, in which parasites evolve to overcome host defences and hosts are selected to counteract these through the evolution of new defences. This is expected to result in variation in parasite-defence interactions, and the evolution of resistant parasites causing increased virulence. Fungus-growing ants maintain antibiotic-producing Pseudonocardia (Actinobacteria) that aid in protection against specialized parasites of the ants' fungal gardens, and current evidence indicates that both symbionts have been associated with the ants for millions of years. Here we examine the extent of variation in the defensive capabilities of the ant-actinobacterial association against Escovopsis (parasite-defence interactions), and evaluate how variation impacts colonies of fungus-growing ants. We focus on five species of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants, crossing 12 strains of Pseudonocardia with 12 strains of Escovopsis in a Petri plate bioassay experiment, and subsequently conduct subcolony infection experiments using resistant and non-resistant parasite strains. Diversity in parasite-defence interactions, including pairings where the parasites are resistant, suggests that chemical variation in the antibiotics produced by different actinobacterial strains are responsible for the observed variation in parasite susceptibility. By evaluating the role this variation plays during infection, we show that infection of ant subcolonies with resistant parasite strains results in significantly higher parasite-induced morbidity with respect to garden biomass loss. Our findings thus further establish the role of Pseudonocardia-derived antibiotics in helping defend the ants' fungus garden from the parasite Escovopsis, and provide evidence that small molecules can play important roles as antibiotics in a natural system.
A combination of small molecule chemistry, biosynthetic analysis, and genome mining has revealed the unexpected conservation of polycyclic tetramate macrolactam biosynthetic loci in diverse bacteria. Initially our chemical analysis of a Streptomyces strain associated with the southern pine beetle led to the discovery of frontalamides A and B, two previously undescribed members of this antibiotic family. Genome analyses and genetic manipulation of the producing organism led to the identification of the frontalamide biosynthetic gene cluster and several biosynthetic intermediates. The biosynthetic locus for the frontalamides' mixed polyketide/amino acid structure encodes a hybrid polyketide synthase nonribosomal peptide synthetase (PKS-NRPS), which resembles iterative enzymes known in fungi. No such mixed iterative PKS-NRPS enzymes have been characterized in bacteria. Genome-mining efforts revealed strikingly conserved frontalamide-like biosynthetic clusters in the genomes of phylogenetically diverse bacteria ranging from proteobacteria to actinomycetes. Screens for environmental actinomycete isolates carrying frontalamide-like biosynthetic loci led to the isolation of a number of positive strains, the majority of which produced candidate frontalamide-like compounds under suitable growth conditions. These results establish the prevalence of frontalamide-like gene clusters in diverse bacterial types, with medicinally important Streptomyces species being particularly enriched.
Bacterial communities are known to play important roles in insect life histories, yet their consistency or variation across populations is poorly understood. Bacteria associated with the bark beetle Dendroctonus valens LeConte from eight populations, ranging from Wisconsin to Oregon, were evaluated and compared. We used the culture-independent technique of denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis to visualize bacterial diversity, or individual operational taxonomic units (OTUs), from individual beetles. One-way analysis of similarities was used to test for differences of bacterial communities between sites. Analysis of community profiles showed that individual beetles on average contained 10 OTUs, with frequency of association from 2 to 100% of beetles. OTU sequences most closely matched beta- and gamma-proteobacteria, and one each matched Bacilli and Actinobacteria. Several OTUs were particularly abundant, most notably an Actinobacterium from 100% and two Proteobacteria from 60% of beetles sampled. Some OTUs were similar to previously described bacteria with known biochemical capabilities and ecological functions, suggesting that some bacterial associates of D. valens may contribute to its ability to exploit a resource low in nutrients and high in defensive compounds. There were significant differences of bacterial communities between sites. The strength of these differences was positively correlated with distance between sites, although additional unexplained factors also contribute to the variation.
Blastomyces dermatitidis belongs to a group of human pathogenic fungi that exhibit thermal dimorphism. At 22 degrees C, these fungi grow as mold that produce conidia or infectious particles, whereas at 37 degrees C they convert to budding yeast. The ability to switch between these forms is essential for virulence in mammals and may enable these organisms to survive in the soil. To identify genes that regulate this phase transition, we used Agrobacterium tumefaciens to mutagenize B. dermatitidis conidia and screened transformants for defects in morphogenesis. We found that the GATA transcription factor SREB governs multiple fates in B. dermatitidis: phase transition from yeast to mold, cell growth at 22 degrees C, and biosynthesis of siderophores under iron-replete conditions. Insertional and null mutants fail to convert to mold, do not accumulate significant biomass at 22 degrees C, and are unable to suppress siderophore biosynthesis under iron-replete conditions. The defect in morphogenesis in the SREB mutant was independent of exogenous iron concentration, suggesting that SREB promotes the phase transition by altering the expression of genes that are unrelated to siderophore biosynthesis. Using bioinformatic and gene expression analyses, we identified candidate genes with upstream GATA sites whose expression is altered in the null mutant that may be direct or indirect targets of SREB and promote the phase transition. We conclude that SREB functions as a transcription factor that promotes morphogenesis and regulates siderophore biosynthesis. To our knowledge, this is the first gene identified that promotes the conversion from yeast to mold in the dimorphic fungi, and may shed light on environmental persistence of these pathogens.
Leaf-cutter ants use fresh plant material to grow a mutualistic fungus that serves as the ants' primary food source. Within fungus gardens, various plant compounds are metabolized and transformed into nutrients suitable for ant consumption. This symbiotic association produces a large amount of refuse consisting primarily of partly degraded plant material. A leaf-cutter ant colony is thus divided into two spatially and chemically distinct environments that together represent a plant biomass degradation gradient. Little is known about the microbial community structure in gardens and dumps or variation between lab and field colonies. Using microbial membrane lipid analysis and a variety of community metrics, we assessed and compared the microbiota of fungus gardens and refuse dumps from both laboratory-maintained and field-collected colonies. We found that gardens contained a diverse and consistent community of microbes, dominated by Gram-negative bacteria, particularly gamma-Proteobacteria and Bacteroidetes. These findings were consistent across lab and field gardens, as well as host ant taxa. In contrast, dumps were enriched for Gram-positive and anaerobic bacteria. Broad-scale clustering analyses revealed that community relatedness between samples reflected system component (gardens/dumps) rather than colony source (lab/field). At finer scales samples clustered according to colony source. Here we report the first comparative analysis of the microbiota from leaf-cutter ant colonies. Our work reveals the presence of two distinct communities: one in the fungus garden and the other in the refuse dump. Though we find some effect of colony source on community structure, our data indicate the presence of consistently associated microbes within gardens and dumps. Substrate composition and system component appear to be the most important factor in structuring the microbial communities. These results thus suggest that resident communities are shaped by the plant degradation gradient created by ant behavior, specifically their fungiculture and waste management.
Host-parasite dynamics can be altered when a host is infected by multiple parasite genotypes. The different strains of parasite are expected to compete for the limited host resources, potentially affecting the survival and reproduction of the host as well as the infecting parasites. Fungus-growing ants, including the well-known leaf-cutters, are an emerging model system for studying the evolution and ecology of symbiosis and host-parasite dynamics. We examine whether the fungus gardens of leaf-cutter ants can be simultaneously infected by multiple strains of the fungal pathogen Escovopsis. Intensive sampling of Escovopsis was conducted from individual gardens, as well as between different garden chambers within individual colonies of leaf-cutting ants. Isolates obtained were genotyped by DNA sequencing. We found that, minimally, 67% of the individual colonies of the leaf-cutter ant genera Atta and Acromyrmex and 50% of the At. colombica garden chambers studied were simultaneously infected by multiple distinct Escovopsis strains. Experimental challenges showed that different Escovopsis strains do not exhibit obvious antagonism toward each other, suggesting that coinfecting strains of the parasite do not engage in interference competition, although interactions were not studied at the cellular level. Further research is needed to understand interparasite interactions between coinfecting Escovopsis strains and to understand the impact of multiparasite infections on the survival of leaf-cutter ant gardens.
Mutualistic associations are shaped by the interplay of cooperation and conflict among the partners involved, and it is becoming increasingly clear that within many mutualisms multiple partners simultaneously engage in beneficial interactions. Consequently, a more complete understanding of the dynamics within multipartite mutualism communities is essential for understanding the origin, specificity, and stability of mutualisms. Fungus-growing ants cultivate fungi for food and maintain antibiotic-producing Pseudonocardia actinobacteria on their cuticle that help defend the cultivar fungus from specialized parasites. Within both ant-fungus and ant-bacterium mutualisms, mixing of genetically distinct strains can lead to antagonistic interactions (i.e., competitive conflict), which may prevent the ants from rearing multiple strains of either of the mutualistic symbionts within individual colonies. The success of different ant-cultivar-bacterium combinations could ultimately be governed by antagonistic interactions between the two mutualists, either as inhibition of the cultivar by Pseudonocardia or vice versa. Here we explore cultivar-Pseudonocardia antagonism by evaluating in vitro interactions between strains of the two mutualists, and find frequent antagonistic interactions both from cultivars towards Pseudonocardia and vice versa. To test whether such in vitro antagonistic interactions affect ant colonies in vivo, we performed sub-colony experiments using species of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants. We created novel ant-fungus-bacterium pairings in which there was antagonism from one, both, or neither of the ants' microbial mutualists, and evaluated the effect of directional antagonism on cultivar biomass and Pseudonocardia abundance on the cuticle of workers within sub-colonies. Despite the presence of frequent in vitro growth suppression between cultivars and Pseudonocardia, antagonism from Pseudonocardia towards the cultivar did not reduce sub-colony fungus garden biomass, nor did cultivar antagonism towards Pseudonocardia reduce bacteria abundance on the cuticle of sub-colony workers. Our findings suggest that inter-mutualist antagonism does not limit what combinations of cultivar and Pseudonocardia strains Acromyrmex fungus-growing ants can maintain within nests.
A new polyketide glycoside, bionectriol A (1), was produced by a fungal culture of Bionectria sp., which was isolated from a fungus garden of the fungus-growing ant Apterostigma dentigerum, in Costa Rica. The structure of bionectriol A was determined mainly through NMR and mass spectroscopic data, as well as UV and IR spectra. The relative configurations of the main chain, the pyranohexose, and the pentitol moiety were elucidated by (1)H-(1)H coupling constants and ROESY NMR spectral analysis.
Bacteria-mediated acquisition of atmospheric N2 serves as a critical source of nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems. Here we reveal that symbiotic nitrogen fixation facilitates the cultivation of specialized fungal crops by leaf-cutter ants. By using acetylene reduction and stable isotope experiments, we demonstrated that N2 fixation occurred in the fungus gardens of eight leaf-cutter ant species and, further, that this fixed nitrogen was incorporated into ant biomass. Symbiotic N2-fixing bacteria were consistently isolated from the fungus gardens of 80 leaf-cutter ant colonies collected in Argentina, Costa Rica, and Panama. The discovery of N2 fixation within the leaf-cutter ant-microbe symbiosis reveals a previously unrecognized nitrogen source in neotropical ecosystems.
Evolutionary theory predicts that hosts are selected to prevent mixing of genetically different symbionts when competition among lineages reduces the productivity of a mutualism. The symbionts themselves may also defend their interests: recent studies of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants showed that somatic incompatibility enforces single-clone gardens within mature colonies, thereby constraining horizontal transmission of fungal symbionts. However, phylogenetic analyses indicate that symbiont switches occur frequently enough to remove most signs of host-symbiont cocladogenesis. Here we resolve this paradox by showing that transmission among newly founded Acromyrmex colonies is not constrained. All tested queens of sympatric A. octospinosus and A. echinatior offered a novel fragment of fungus garden accepted the new symbiont. The outcome was unaffected by genetic distance between the novel and the original symbiont, and by the ant species the novel symbiont came from. The colony founding stage may thus provide an efficient but transient window for horizontal transmission, in which the fungus is unable to actively defend its partnership position before the host feeds on it, so that host fecal droplets remain compatible with alternative strains during the early stage of colony founding. We discuss how brief stages of low commitment between partners may increase the evolutionary stability of ancient coevolved mutualisms.
No abstract available.
No abstract available.
The persistence of cooperative relationships is an evolutionary paradox; selection should favor those individuals that exploit their partners (cheating), resulting in the breakdown of cooperation over evolutionary time. Our current understanding of the evolutionary stability of mutualisms (cooperation between species) is strongly shaped by the view that they are often maintained by partners having mechanisms to avoid or retaliate against exploitation by cheaters. In contrast, we empirically and theoretically examine how additional symbionts, specifically specialized parasites, potentially influence the stability of bipartite mutualistic associations. In our empirical work we focus on the obligate mutualism between fungus-growing ants and the fungi they cultivate for food. This mutualism is exploited by specialized microfungal parasites (genus Escovopsis) that infect the ant's fungal gardens. Using sub-colonies of fungus-growing ants, we investigate the interactions between the fungus garden parasite and cooperative and experimentally-enforced uncooperative ("cheating") pairs of ants and fungi. To further examine if parasites have the potential to help stabilize some mutualisms we conduct Iterative Prisoner's Dilemma (IPD) simulations, a common framework for predicting the outcomes of cooperative/non-cooperative interactions, which incorporate parasitism as an additional factor. In our empirical work employing sub-colonies of fungus-growing ants, we found that Escovopsis-infected sub-colonies composed of cheating populations of ants or fungi lost significantly more garden biomass than sub-colonies subjected to infection or cheating (ants or fungi) alone. Since the loss of fungus garden compromises the fitness of both mutualists, our findings suggest that the potential benefit received by the ants or fungi for cheating is outweighed by the increased concomitant cost of parasitism engendered by non-cooperation (cheating). IPD simulations support our empirical results by confirming that a purely cooperative strategy, which is unsuccessful in the classic IPD model, becomes stable when parasites are included. Here we suggest, and provide evidence for, parasitism being an external force that has the potential to help stabilize cooperation by aligning the selfish interests of cooperative partners in opposition to a common enemy. Specifically, our empirical results and IPD simulations suggest that when two mutualists share a common enemy selection can favor cooperation over cheating, which may help explain the evolutionary stability of some mutualisms.
Fungus-growing ants engage in mutualistic associations with both the fungus they cultivate for food and actinobacteria (Pseudonocardia spp.) that produce selective antibiotics to defend that fungus from specialized fungal parasites. We have analyzed one such system at the molecular level and found that the bacterium associated with the ant Apterostigma dentigerum produces dentigerumycin, a cyclic depsipeptide with highly modified amino acids, to selectively inhibit the associated parasitic fungus (Escovopsis sp.).
Fungus-growing ants (Attini: Formicidae) engage in an obligate mutualism with fungi they cultivate for food. Although biologists have been fascinated with fungus-growing ants since the resurgence of natural history in the modern era, the early stages of research focused mainly on the foraging behavior of the leaf-cutters (the most derived attine lineage). Indeed, the discovery that the ants actually use leaf fragments to manure a fungus did not come until the 1800s. More recently, three additional microbial symbionts have been described, including specialized microfungal parasites of the ant's fungus garden, antibiotic-producing actinobacteria that help protect the fungus garden from the parasite, and a black yeast that parasitizes the ant-actinobacteria mutualism. The fungus-growing ant symbiosis serves as a particularly useful model system for studying insect-microbe symbioses, because, to date, it contains four well-characterized microbial symbionts, including mutualists and parasites that encompass micro-fungi, macro-fungi, yeasts, and bacteria. Here, we discuss approaches for studying insect-microbe symbioses, using the attine ant-microbial symbiosis as our framework. We draw attention to particular challenges in the field of symbiosis, including the establishment of symbiotic associations and symbiont function. Finally, we discuss future directions in insect-microbe research, with particular focus on applying recent advances in DNA sequencing technologies.
A mutualist actinomycete of the southern pine beetle, Dendroctonus frontalis, produces a polyene peroxide with pronounced antifungal activity. Its structure, absolute configuration, and biological activity were determined by spectral analysis, chemical modification followed by the modified Mosher method, and growth inhibitory assays, respectively.
Host-microbe symbioses play a critical role in the evolution of biological diversity and complexity. In a notably intricate system, southern pine beetles use symbiotic fungi to help overcome host-tree defenses and to provide nutrition for their larvae. We show that this beetle-fungal mutualism is chemically mediated by a bacterially produced polyunsaturated peroxide. The molecule's selective toxicity toward the beetle's fungal antagonist, combined with the prevalence and localization of its bacterial source, indicates an insect-microbe association that is both mutualistic and coevolved. This unexpected finding in a well-studied system indicates that mutualistic associations between insects and antibiotic-producing bacteria are more common than currently recognized and that identifying their small-molecule mediators can provide a powerful search strategy for therapeutically useful antimicrobial compounds.
Multiplayer symbioses are common in nature, but our understanding of the ecological dynamics occurring in complex symbioses is limited. The tripartite mutualism between fungus-growing ants, their fungal cultivars, and antibiotic-producing bacteria exemplifies symbiotic complexity. Here we reveal how black yeasts, newly described symbionts of the ant-microbe system, compromise the efficiency of bacteria-derived antibiotic defense in fungus-growing ants. We found that symbiotic black yeasts acquire nutrients from the ants' bacterial mutualist, and suppress bacterial growth. Experimental manipulation of ant colonies and their symbionts shows that ants infected with black yeasts are significantly less effective at defending their fungus garden from Escovopsis, a prevalent and specialized pathogen. The reduction of mutualistic bacterial biomass on ants, likely caused by black yeast symbionts, apparently reduces the quantity of antibiotics available to inhibit the garden pathogen. Success of the ant-fungal mutualism is directly dependent on fungus garden health. Thus our finding that black yeasts compromise the ants' ability to deal with the garden parasite indicates that it is an integral component of the symbiosis. This is further evidence that a full understanding of symbiotic associations requires examining the direct and indirect interactions of symbionts in their ecological community context.
The fungus-growing ant-microbe mutualism is a classic example of organismal complexity generated through symbiotic association. The ants have an ancient obligate mutualism with fungi they cultivate for food. The success of the mutualism is threatened by specialized fungal parasites (Escovopsis) that consume the cultivated fungus. To defend their nutrient-rich garden against infection, the ants have a second mutualism with bacteria (Pseudonocardia), which produce antibiotics that inhibit the garden parasite Escovopsis. Here we reveal the presence of a fourth microbial symbiont associated with fungus-growing ants: black yeasts (Ascomycota; Phialophora). We show that black yeasts are commonly associated with fungus-growing ants, occurring throughout their geographical distribution. Black yeasts grow on the ants' cuticle, specifically localized to where the mutualistic bacteria are cultured. Molecular phylogenetic analyses reveal that the black yeasts form a derived monophyletic lineage associated with the phylogenetic diversity of fungus growers. The prevalence, distribution, localization and monophyly indicate that the black yeast is a fifth symbiont within the attine ant-microbe association, further exemplifying the complexity of symbiotic associations.
Conflict within mutually beneficial associations is predicted to destabilize relationships, and theoretical and empirical work exploring this has provided significant insight into the dynamics of cooperative interactions. Within mutualistic associations, the expression and regulation of conflict is likely more complex than in intraspecific cooperative relationship, because of the potential presence of: i) multiple genotypes of microbial species associated with individual hosts, ii) multiple species of symbiotic lineages forming cooperative partner pairings, and iii) additional symbiont lineages. Here we explore complexity of conflict expression within the ancient and coevolved mutualistic association between attine ants, their fungal cultivar, and actinomycetous bacteria (Pseudonocardia). Specifically, we examine conflict between the ants and their Pseudonocardia symbionts maintained to derive antibiotics against parasitic microfungi (Escovopsis) infecting the ants' fungus garden. Symbiont assays pairing isolates of Pseudonocardia spp. associated with fungus-growing ants spanning the phylogenetic diversity of the mutualism revealed that antagonism between strains is common. In contrast, antagonism was substantially less common between more closely related bacteria associated with Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants. In both experiments, the observed variation in antagonism across pairings was primarily due to the inhibitory capabilities and susceptibility of individual strains, but also the phylogenetic relationships between the ant host of the symbionts, as well as the pair-wise genetic distances between strains. The presence of antagonism throughout the phylogenetic diversity of Pseudonocardia symbionts indicates that these reactions likely have shaped the symbiosis from its origin. Antagonism is expected to prevent novel strains from invading colonies, enforcing single-strain rearing within individual ant colonies. While this may align ant-actinomycete interests in the bipartite association, the presence of single strains of Pseudonocardia within colonies may not be in the best interest of the ants, because increasing the diversity of bacteria, and thereby antibiotic diversity, would help the ant-fungus mutualism deal with the specialized parasites.
Symbiont choice has been proposed to play an important role in shaping many symbiotic relationships, including the fungus-growing ant-microbe mutualism. Over millions of years, fungus-growing ants have defended their fungus gardens from specialized parasites with antibiotics produced by an actinomycete bacterial mutualist (genus Pseudonocardia). Despite the potential of being infected by phylogenetically diverse strains of parasites, each ant colony maintains only a single Pseudonocardia symbiont strain, which is primarily vertically transmitted between colonies by the founding queens. In this study, we show that Acromyrmex leaf-cutter ants are able to differentiate between their native actinomycete strain and a variety of foreign strains isolated from sympatric and allopatric Acromyrmex species, in addition to strains originating from other fungus-growing ant genera. The recognition mechanism is sufficiently sensitive for the ants to discriminate between closely related symbiont strains. Our findings suggest that symbiont recognition may play a crucial role in the fungus-growing ant-bacterium mutualism, likely allowing the ants to retain ecological flexibility necessary for defending their garden from diverse parasites and, at the same time, resolve potential conflict that can arise from rearing competing symbiont strains.
Host-parasite associations are shaped by coevolutionary dynamics. One example is the complex fungus-growing ant-microbe symbiosis, which includes ancient host-parasite coevolution. Fungus-growing ants and the fungi they cultivate for food have an antagonistic symbiosis with Escovopsis, a specialized microfungus that infects the ants' fungus gardens. The evolutionary histories of the ant, cultivar and Escovopsis are highly congruent at the deepest phylogenetic levels, with specific parasite lineages exclusively associating with corresponding groups of ants and cultivar. Here, we examine host-parasite specificity at finer phylogenetic levels, within the most derived clade of fungus-growing ants, the leaf-cutters (Atta spp. and Acromyrmex spp.). Our molecular phylogeny of Escovopsis isolates from the leaf-cutter ant-microbe symbiosis confirms specificity at the broad phylogenetic level, but reveals frequent host-switching events between species and genera of leaf-cutter ants. Escovopsis strains isolated from Acromyrmex and Atta gardens occur together in the same clades, and very closely related strains can even infect the gardens of both ant genera. Experimental evidence supports low host-parasite specificity, with phylogenetically diverse strains of Escovopsis being capable of overgrowing all leaf-cutter cultivars examined. Thus, our findings indicate that this host-pathogen association is shaped by the farming ants having to protect their cultivated fungus from phylogenetically diverse Escovopsis garden pathogens.
The fungus-growing ant-microbe symbiosis consists of coevolving microbial mutualists and pathogens. The diverse fungal lineages that these ants cultivate are attacked by parasitic microfungi of the genus Escovopsis. Previous molecular analyses have demonstrated strong phylogenetic congruence between the ants, the ants-cultivated fungi and the garden pathogen Escovopsis at ancient phylogenetic levels, suggesting coevolution of these symbionts. However, few studies have explored cophylogenetic patterns between these symbionts at the recent phylogenetic levels necessary to address whether these parasites are occasionally switching to novel hosts or whether they are diversifying with their hosts as a consequence of long-term host fidelity. Here, a more extensive phylogenetic analysis of Escovopsis lineages infecting the gardens of Apterostigma ants demonstrates that these pathogens display patterns of phylogenetic congruence with their fungal hosts. Particular clades of Escovopsis track particular clades of cultivated fungi, and closely-related Escovopsis generally infect closely-related hosts. Discordance between host and parasite phylogenies, however, provides the first evidence for occasional host-switches or acquisitions of novel infections from the environment. The fungus-growing ant-microbe association has a complex coevolutionary history. Though there is clear evidence of host-specificity on the part of diverse Escovopsis lineages, these pathogens have switched occasionally to novel host fungi. Such switching is likely to have profound effects on how these host and parasites adapt to one another over evolutionary time scales and may impact how disease spreads over ecological time scales.
Switching by parasites to novel hosts has profound effects on ecological and evolutionary disease dynamics. Switching requires that parasites are able to establish contact with novel hosts and to overcome host defenses. For most host-parasite associations, it is unclear as to what specific mechanisms prevent infection of novel hosts. Here, we show that parasitic fungal species in the genus Escovopsis, which attack and consume the fungi cultivated by fungus-growing ants, are attracted to their hosts via chemotaxis. This response is host-specific: Escovopsis spp. grow towards their natural host cultivars more rapidly than towards other closely related fungi. Moreover, the cultivated fungi secrete compounds that can suppress Escovopsis growth. These antibiotic defenses are likewise specific: in most interactions, cultivars can inhibit growth of Escovopsis spp. not known to infect them in nature but cannot inhibit isolates of their naturally infecting pathogens. Cases in which cultivars are susceptible to novel Escovopsis are limited to a narrow set of host-parasite strain combinations. Targeted chemotactic and antibiotic responses therefore explain why Escovopsis pathogens do not readily switch to novel hosts, consequently constraining long-term dynamics of host-parasite coevolution within this ancient association.
Parasites influence host biology and population structure, and thus shape the evolution of their hosts. Parasites often accelerate the evolution of host defences, including direct defences such as evasion and sanitation and indirect defences such as the management of beneficial microbes that aid in the suppression or removal of pathogens. Fungus-growing ants are doubly burdened by parasites, needing to protect their crops as well as themselves from infection. We show that parasite removal from fungus gardens is more complex than previously realized. In response to infection of their fungal gardens by a specialized virulent parasite, ants gather and compress parasitic spores and hyphae in their infrabuccal pockets, then deposit the resulting pellet in piles near their gardens. We reveal that the ants' infrabuccal pocket functions as a specialized sterilization device, killing spores of the garden parasite Escovopsis. This is apparently achieved through a symbiotic association with actinomycetous bacteria in the infrabuccal pocket that produce antibiotics which inhibit Escovopsis. The use of the infrabuccal pocket as a receptacle to sequester Escovopsis, and as a location for antibiotic administration by the ants' bacterial mutualist, illustrates how the combination of behaviour and microbial symbionts can be a successful defence strategy for hosts.
Attine ants engage in a quadripartite symbiosis with fungi they cultivate for food, specialized garden parasites, and parasite-inhibiting bacteria. Molecular phylogenetic evidence supports an ancient host-pathogen association between the ant-cultivar mutualism and the garden parasite. Here we show that ants rear the antibiotic-producing bacteria in elaborate cuticular crypts, supported by unique exocrine glands, and that these structures have been highly modified across the ants' evolutionary history. This specialized structural evolution, together with the absence of these bacteria and modifications in other ant genera that do not grow fungus, indicate that the bacteria have an ancient and coevolved association with the ants, their fungal cultivar, and the garden parasite.
Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants maintain two highly specialized, vertically transmitted mutualistic ectosymbionts: basidiomycete fungi that are cultivated for food in underground gardens and actinomycete Pseudonocardia bacteria that are reared on the cuticle to produce antibiotics that suppress the growth of Escovopsis parasites of the fungus garden. Mutualism stability has been hypothesized to benefit from genetic uniformity of symbionts, as multiple coexisting strains are expected to compete and, thus, reduce the benefit of the symbiosis. However, the Pseudonocardia symbionts are likely to be involved in Red-Queen-like antagonistic co-evolution with Escovopsis so that multiple strains per host might be favoured by selection provided the cost of competition between bacterial strains is low. We examined the genetic uniformity of the Pseudonocardia symbionts of two sympatric species of Acromyrmex ants by comparing partial sequences of the nuclear Elongation Factor-Tu gene. We find no genetic variation in Pseudonocardia symbionts among nest mate workers, neither in Acromyrmex octospinosus, where colonies are founded by a single queen, nor in Acromyrmex echinatior, where mixing of bacterial lineages might happen when unrelated queens cofound a colony. We further show that the two ant species maintain the same pool of Pseudonocardia symbionts, indicating that horizontal transmission occasionally occurs, and that this pool consists of two distinct clades of closely related Pseudonocardia strains. Our finding that individual colonies cultivate a single actinomycete strain is in agreement with predictions from evolutionary theory on host-symbiont conflict over symbiont mixing, but indicates that there may be constraints on the effectiveness of the bacterial symbionts on an evolutionary timescale.
The attine ant-microbe system is a quadripartite symbiosis, involving a complex set of mutualistic and parasitic associations. The symbiosis includes the fungus-growing ants (tribe Attini), the basidiomycetous fungi the ants cultivate for food, specialized microfungal parasites (in the genus Escovopsis) of the cultivar, and ant-associated mu tualistic filamentous bacteria that secrete antibiotics specifically targeted to suppress the growth of Escovopsis. In this study, we conduct the first phylogenetic analysis of the filamentous mutualistic bacteria (actinomycetes) associated with fungus-growing ants. The filamentous bacteria present on 3 genera of fungus-growing ants (Acromyrmex, Trachy myrmex, and Apterostigma) were isolated from 126 colonies. The isolated actinomycetes were grouped into 3 distinct morphological types. Each morphological type was specific to the ant genus from which it was isolated, suggesting some degree of host specificity. The phylogenetic position of the 3 morphotypes was estimated using 16S rDNA for representative strains. The 8 isolates of actinomycetes sequenced are in the family Pseudonocardiaceae (Actino mycetales) and belong to the genus Pseudonocardia. Transmission electron microscopy examination of the actino mycete associated with the cuticle of Acromyrmex sp. revealed bacterial cells with an outer electron-dense membrane, consistent with actinomycetes in the genus Pseudonocardia. Ant-associated Pseudonocardia isolates did not form a monophyletic group, suggesting multiple acquisitions of actinomycetes by fungus-growing ants over their evolutionary history.
Fungus-growing ants, their cultivated fungi and the cultivar-attacking parasite Escovopsis coevolve as a complex community. Higher-level phylogenetic congruence of the symbionts suggests specialized long-term associations of host-parasite clades but reveals little about parasite specificity at finer scales of species-species and genotype-genotype interactions. By coupling sequence and amplified fragment length polymorphism genotyping analyses with experimental evidence, we examine (i) the host specificity of Escovopsis strains infecting colonies of three closely related ant species in the genus Cyphomyrmex, and (ii) potential mechanisms constraining the Escovopsis host range. Incongruence of cultivar and ant relationships across the three focal Cyphomyrmex spp. allows us to test whether Escovopsis strains track their cultivar or the ant hosts. Phylogenetic analyses demonstrate that the Escovopsis phylogeny matches the cultivar phylogeny but not the ant phylogeny, indicating that the parasites are cultivar specific. Cross-infection experiments establish that ant gardens can be infected by parasite strains with which they are not typically associated in the field, but that infection is more likely when gardens are inoculated with their typical parasite strains. Thus, Escovopsis specialization is shaped by the parasite's ability to overcome only a narrow range of garden-specific defences, but specialization is probably additionally constrained by ecological factors, including the other symbionts (i.e. ants and their antibiotic-producing bacteria) within the coevolved fungus-growing ant symbiosis.
Fungus-growing ants (Attini) live in an obligate mutualism with the fungi they cultivate for food. Because of the obligate nature of this relationship, the success of the ants is directly dependent on their ability to grow healthy fungus gardens. Attine ants have evolved complex disease management strategies to reduce their garden's exposure to potential parasitic microbes, to prevent the establishment of infection in their gardens, and to remove infected garden sections. The infrabuccal pocket, a filtering device located in the oral cavity of all ants, is an integral part of the mechanisms that leaf-cutter ants use to prevent the invasion and spread of general microbial parasites and the specific fungal-garden parasite Escovopsis. Fungus-growing ants carefully groom their garden, collecting general debris and pathogenic spores of Escovopsis in their infrabuccal pocket, the contents of which are later expelled in dump chambers inside the nest or externally. In this study we examined how a phylogenetically diverse collection of attine ants treat their infrabuccal pellets. Unlike leaf-cutters that deposit their infrabuccal pellets directly in refuse piles, ants of the more basal attine lineages stack their infrabuccal pellets in piles located close to their gardens, and a separate caste of workers is devoted to the construction, management, and eventual disposal of these piles.
The symbiosis between fungus-growing ants and the fungi they cultivate for food has been shaped by 50 million years of coevolution. Phylogenetic analyses indicate that this long coevolutionary history includes a third symbiont lineage: specialized microfungal parasites of the ants' fungus gardens. At ancient levels, the phylogenies of the three symbionts are perfectly congruent, revealing that the ant-microbe symbiosis is the product of tripartite coevolution between the farming ants, their cultivars, and the garden parasites. At recent phylogenetic levels, coevolution has been punctuated by occasional host-switching by the parasite, thus intensifying continuous coadaptation between symbionts in a tripartite arms race.
The ancient and highly evolved mutualism between fungus-growing ants and their fungi is a textbook example of symbiosis. The ants carefully tend the fungus, which serves as their main food source, and traditionally are believed to be so successful at fungal cultivation that they are able to maintain the fungus free of microbial pathogens. This assumption is surprising in light of theories on the evolution of parasitism, especially for those species of ants that have been clonally propagating their cultivars for millions of years. Recent work has established that, as theoretically predicted, the gardens of fungus-growing ants are host to a specialized, virulent, and highly evolved fungal pathogen in the genus Escovopsis. In addition, the ants have evolved a mutualistic association with filamentous bacteria (actinomycetes) that produce antibiotics that suppress the growth of Escovopsis. Thus, the attine symbiosis appears to be a coevolutionary "arms race" between the garden parasite Escovopsis on the one hand and the ant-fungus-actinomycete tripartite mutualism on the other. These recent findings indicate that microbes may be key components in the regulation of other symbiotic associations between higher organisms.
Cultivation of fungus for food originated about 45-65 million years ago in the ancestor of fungus-growing ants (Formicidae, tribe Attini), representing an evolutionary transition from the life of a hunter-gatherer of arthropod prey, nectar, and other plant juices, to the life of a farmer subsisting on cultivated fungi. Seven hypotheses have been suggested for the origin of attine fungiculture, each differing with respect to the substrate used by the ancestral attine ants for fungal cultivation. Phylogenetic information on the cultivated fungi, in conjunction with information on the nesting biology of extant attine ants and their presumed closest relatives, reveal that the attine ancestors probably did not encounter their cultivars-to-be in seed stores (von Ihering 1894), in rotting wood (Forel 1902), as mycorrhizae (Garling 1979), on arthropod corpses (von Ihering 1894) or ant faeces in nest middens (Wheeler 1907). Rather, the attine ant-fungus mutualism probably arose from adventitious interactions with fungi that grew on walls of nests built in leaf litter (Emery 1899), or from a system of fungal myrmecochory in which specialized fungi relied on ants for dispersal (Bailey 1920) and in which the ants fortuitously vectored these fungi from parent to offspring nests prior to a true fungicultural stage. Reliance on fungi as a dominant food source has evolved only twice in ants: first in the attine ants, and second in some ant species in the solenopsidine genus Megalomyrmex that either coexist as trophic parasites in gardens of attine hosts or aggressively usurp gardens from them. All other known ant-fungus associations are either adventitious or have nonnutritional functions (e.g., strengthening of carton-walls in ant nests). There exist no unambiguous reports of facultative mycophagy in ants, but such trophic ant-fungus interactions would most likely occur underground or in leaf litter and thus escape easy observation. Indirect evidence of fungivory can be deduced from contents of the ant alimentary canal and particularly from the contents of the infrabuccal pocket, a pharyngeal device that filters out solids before liquids pass into the intestine. Infrabuccal pocket contents reveal that ants routinely ingest fungal spores and hyphal material. Infrabuccal contents are eventually expelled as a pellet on nest middens or away from the nest by foragers, suggesting that the pellet provides fungi with a means for the dispersal of spores and hyphae. Associations between such "buccophilous" fungi and ants may have originated multiple times and may have become elaborated and externalized in the case of the attine ant-fungus mutualism. Thus, contrary to the traditional model in which attine fungi are viewed as passive symbionts that happened to come under ant control, this alternative model of a myrmecochorous origin of the attine mutualism attributes an important role to evolutionary modifications of the fungi that preceded the ant transition from hunter-gatherer to fungus farmer.
The ancient mutualism between fungus-growing ants and the fungi they cultivate for food is a textbook example of symbiosis. Fungus-growing ants' ability to cultivate fungi depends on protection of the garden from the aggressive microbes associated with the substrate added to the garden as well as from the specialized virulent garden parasite Escovopsis. We examined ants' ability to remove alien microbes physically by infecting Atta colombica gardens with the generalist pathogen Trichoderma viride and the specialist pathogen Escovopsis. The ants sanitized the garden using two main behaviours: grooming of alien spores from the garden (fungus grooming) and removal of infected garden substrate (weeding). Unlike previously described hygienic behaviours (e.g. licking and self-grooming), fungus-grooming and garden-removal behaviours are specific responses to the presence of fungal pathogens. In the presence of pathogens, they are the primary activities performed by workers, but they are uncommon in uninfected gardens. In fact, workers rapidly eliminate Trichoderma from their gardens by fungus grooming and weeding, suggesting that these behaviours are the primary method of garden defence against generalist pathogens. The same sanitary behaviours were performed in response to the presence of the specialist pathogen Escovopsis. However, the intensity and duration of these behaviours were much greater in this treatment. Despite the increased effort, the ants were unable to eliminate Escovopsis from their gardens, suggesting that this specialized pathogen has evolved counter-adaptations in order to overcome the sanitary defences of the ants.
Gardens of fungus-growing ants (Formicidae: Attini) traditionally have been thought to be free of microbial parasites, with the fungal mutualist maintained in nearly pure "monocultures." We conducted extensive isolations of "alien" (nonmutualistic) fungi from ant gardens of a phylogenetically representative collection of attine ants. Contrary to the long-standing assumption that gardens are maintained free of microbial pathogens and parasites, they are in fact host to specialized parasites that are only known from attine gardens and that are found in most attine nests. These specialized garden parasites, belonging to the microfungus genus Escovopsis (Ascomycota: anamorphic Hypocreales), are horizontally transmitted between colonies. Consistent with theory of virulence evolution under this mode of pathogen transmission, Escovopsis is highly virulent and has the potential for rapid devastation of ant gardens, leading to colony mortality. The specialized parasite Escovopsis is more prevalent in gardens of the more derived ant lineages than in gardens of the more "primitive" (basal) ant lineages. Because fungal cultivars of derived attine lineages are asexual clones of apparently ancient origin whereas cultivars of primitive ant lineages were domesticated relatively recently from free-living sexual stocks, the increased virulence of pathogens associated with ancient asexual cultivars suggests an evolutionary cost to cultivar clonality, perhaps resulting from slower evolutionary rates of cultivars in the coevolutionary race with their pathogens.