Abstract 1. Fungus-growing termites live in an obligate mutualistic symbiosis with Termitomyces fungi. The functions of the fungal symbiont have been hypothesised to differ between species and to range from highly specific roles of providing plant-degrading enzymes complementary to termite gut enzymes, to non-specific roles of providing protein-rich food to the termites.
2. Termite species with unspecialised fungal symbionts are predicted to be associated with a wider range of symbionts than species with specialised symbionts. Recent DNA data have confirmed this prediction, but evidence for differences in functional specificity has been sparse and indirect.
3. Here the consequences of symbiont interaction specificity are experimentally tested by reciprocally exchanging the fungal symbionts of sympatric colonies of Macrotermes natalensis and Odontotermes badius, which were inferred to have specialised and non-specialised symbionts respectively.
4. As expected, survival of O. badius termites on M. natalensis fungus was not significantly worse than on their own fungus, but survival of M. natalensis termites on O. badius fungus was significantly reduced.
5. This asymmetric result confirms that symbiont roles differ significantly between macrotermitine genera and indicates that symbiont transplantation experiments are a powerful tool for testing the functional details of mutualistic symbioses.