Cospeciation in the triplex symbiosis of termite gut protists (Pseudotrichonympha spp.), their hosts, and their bacterial endosymbionts


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A number of cophylogenetic relationships between two organisms namely a host and a symbiont or parasite have been studied to date; however, organismal interactions in nature usually involve multiple members. Here, we investigated the cospeciation of a triplex symbiotic system comprising a hierarchy of three organisms — termites of the family Rhinotermitidae, cellulolytic protists of the genus Pseudotrichonympha in the guts of these termites, and intracellular bacterial symbionts of the protists. The molecular phylogeny was inferred based on two mitochondrial genes for the termites and nuclear small-subunit rRNA genes for the protists and their endosymbionts, and these were compared. Although intestinal microorganisms are generally considered to have looser associations with the host than intracellular symbionts, the Pseudotrichonympha protists showed almost complete codivergence with the host termites, probably due to strict transmissions by proctodeal trophallaxis or coprophagy based on the social behaviour of the termites. Except for one case, the endosymbiotic bacteria of the protists formed a monophyletic lineage in the order Bacteroidales, and the branching pattern was almost identical to those of the protists and the termites. However, some non-codivergent evolutionary events were evident. The members of this triplex symbiotic system appear to have cospeciated during their evolution with minor exceptions; the evolutionary relationships were probably established by termite sociality and the complex microbial community in the gut.