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Multiple gains and losses of Wolbachia symbionts across a tribe of fungus-growing ants


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Although the intracellular bacterium Wolbachia is ubiquitous in insects, it has a unique relationship with New World ants on which particular bacterial strains have specialized. However, data are from distantly related hosts and detailed phylogenetic information which could reveal transmission dynamics are lacking. Here, we investigate host–Wolbachia relationships in the monophyletic fungus-growing ant tribe Attini, screening 23 species and using multilocus sequence typing to reliably identify Wolbachia strains. This technique reduces the significant problem of recombination seen using traditional single gene techniques. The relationship between Wolbachia and the fungus-growing ants appears complex and dynamic. There is evidence of co-cladogenesis, supporting vertical transmission; however, this is incomplete, demonstrating that horizontal transmission has also occurred. Importantly, the infection prevalence is frequently different between closely related taxa, with the Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants appearing particularly prone to infection and there being no consistent relationship with any of the major life history transitions. We suggest that infection loss and horizontal transmission have driven epidemics or selective sweeps of Wolbachia, resulting in multiple gains and losses of infection across the fungus-growing ants.

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