Host control over infection and proliferation of a cheater symbiont


Joel L. Sachs, Department of Biology, University of California, 1208 Spieth Hall, Riverside, CA 92521, USA.
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Host control mechanisms are thought to be critical for selecting against cheater mutants in symbiont populations. Here, we provide the first experimental test of a legume host’s ability to constrain the infection and proliferation of a native-occurring rhizobial cheater. Lotus strigosus hosts were experimentally inoculated with pairs of Bradyrhizobium strains that naturally vary in symbiotic benefit, including a cheater strain that proliferates in the roots of singly infected hosts, yet provides zero growth benefits. Within co-infected hosts, the cheater exhibited lower infection rates than competing beneficial strains and grew to smaller population sizes within those nodules. In vitro assays revealed that infection-rate differences among competing strains were not caused by variation in rhizobial growth rate or interstrain toxicity. These results can explain how a rapidly growing cheater symbiont – that exhibits a massive fitness advantage in single infections – can be prevented from sweeping through a beneficial population of symbionts.