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Correlates of gut community composition across an ant species (Cephalotes varians) elucidate causes and consequences of symbiotic variability



Insect guts are often colonized by multispecies microbial communities that play integral roles in nutrition, digestion and defence. Community composition can differ across host species with increasing dietary and genetic divergence, yet gut microbiota can also vary between conspecific hosts and across an individual's lifespan. Through exploration of such intraspecific variation and its correlates, molecular profiling of microbial communities can generate and test hypotheses on the causes and consequences of symbioses. In this study, we used 454 pyrosequencing and TRFLP to achieve these goals in an herbivorous ant, Cephalotes varians, exploring variation in bacterial communities across colonies, populations and workers reared on different diets. C. varians bacterial communities were dominated by 16 core species present in over two-thirds of the sampled colonies. Core species comprised multiple genotypes, or strains and hailed from ant-specific clades containing relatives from other Cephalotes species. Yet three were detected in environmental samples, suggesting the potential for environmental acquisition. In spite of their prevalence and long-standing relationships with Cephalotes ants, the relative abundance and genotypic composition of core species varied across colonies. Diet-induced plasticity is a likely cause, but only pollen-based diets had consistent effects, altering the abundance of two types of bacteria. Additional factors, such as host age, genetics, chance or natural selection, must therefore shape natural variation. Future studies on these possibilities and on bacterial contributions to the use of pollen, a widespread food source across Cephalotes, will be important steps in developing C. varians as a model for studying widespread social insect-bacteria symbioses.