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COEVOLUTION BETWEEN ATTINE ANTS AND ACTINOMYCETE BACTERIA: A REEVALUATION

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Abstract

We reassess the coevolution between actinomycete bacteria and fungus-gardening (attine) ants. Actinomycete bacteria are of special interest because they are metabolic mutualists of diverse organisms (e.g., in nitrogen-fixation or antibiotic production) and because Pseudonocardia actinomycetes are thought to serve disease-suppressing functions in attine gardens. Phylogenetic information from culture-dependent and culture-independent microbial surveys reveals (1) close affinities between free-living and ant-associated Pseudonocardia, and (2) essentially no topological correspondence between ant and Pseudonocardia phylogenies, indicating frequent bacterial acquisition from environmental sources. Identity of ant-associated Pseudonocardia and isolates from soil and plants implicates these environments as sources from which attine ants acquire Pseudonocardia. Close relatives of Atta leafcutter ants have abundant Pseudonocardia, but Pseudonocardia in Atta is rare and appears at the level of environmental contamination. In contrast, actinomycete bacteria in the genera Mycobacterium and Microbacterium can be readily isolated from gardens and starter-cultures of Atta. The accumulated phylogenetic evidence is inconsistent with prevailing views of specific coevolution between Pseudonocardia, attine ants, and garden diseases. Because of frequent acquisition, current models of Pseudonocardia-disease coevolution now need to be revised. The effectiveness of Pseudonocardia antibiotics may not derive from advantages in the coevolutionary arms race with specialized garden diseases, as currently believed, but from frequent recruitment of effective microbes from environmental sources. Indeed, the exposed integumental structures that support actinomycete growth on attine ants argue for a morphological design facilitating bacterial recruitment. We review the accumulated evidence that attine ants have undergone modifications in association with actinomycete bacteria, but we find insufficient support for the reverse, modifications of the bacteria resulting from the interaction with attine ants. The defining feature of coevolution—reciprocal modification—therefore remains to be established for the attine ant-actinomycete mutualism.

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