[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: The mutualism between leaf-cutting ants and their fungal symbionts revolves around processing and inoculation of fresh leaf pulp in underground fungus gardens, mediated by ant fecal fluid deposited on the newly added plant substrate. As herbivorous feeding often implies that growth is nitrogen limited, we cloned and sequenced six fungal proteases found in the fecal fluid of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior and identified them as two metalloendoproteases, two serine proteases and two aspartic proteases. The metalloendoproteases and serine proteases showed significant activity in fecal fluid at pH values of 5-7, but the aspartic proteases were inactive across a pH range of 3-10. Protease activity disappeared when the ants were kept on a sugar water diet without fungus. Relative to normal mycelium, both metalloendoproteases, both serine proteases and one aspartic protease were upregulated in the gongylidia, specialized hyphal tips whose only known function is to provide food to the ants. These combined results indicate that the enzymes are derived from the ingested fungal tissues. We infer that the five proteases are likely to accelerate protein extraction from plant cells in the leaf pulp that the ants add to the fungus garden, but regulatory functions such as activation of proenzymes are also possible, particularly for the aspartic proteases that were present but without showing activity. The proteases had high sequence similarities to proteolytic enzymes of phytopathogenic fungi, consistent with previous indications of convergent evolution of decomposition enzymes in attine ant fungal symbionts and phytopathogenic fungi.The ISME Journal advance online publication, 9 January 2014; doi:10.1038/ismej.2013.231.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: The fungus gardens of leaf-cutting ants are natural biomass conversion systems that turn fresh plant forage into fungal biomass to feed the farming ants. However, the decomposition potential of the symbiont Leucocoprinus gongylophorus for processing polysaccharides has remained controversial. We therefore used quantifiable DeepSAGE technology to obtain mRNA expression patterns of genes coding for secreted enzymes from top, middle, and bottom sections of a laboratory fungus-garden of Acromyrmex echinatior leaf-cutting ants.
A broad spectrum of biomass-conversion-relevant enzyme genes was found to be expressed in situ: cellulases (GH3, GH5, GH6, GH7, AA9 [formerly GH61]), hemicellulases (GH5, GH10, CE1, GH12, GH74), pectinolytic enzymes (CE8, GH28, GH43, PL1, PL3, PL4), glucoamylase (GH15), alpha-galactosidase (GH27), and various cutinases, esterases, and lipases. In general, expression of these genes reached maximal values in the bottom section of the garden, particularly for an AA9 lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase and for a GH5 (endocellulase), a GH7 (reducing end-acting cellobiohydrolase), and a GH10 (xylanase), all containing a carbohydrate binding module that specifically binds cellulose (CBM1). Although we did not directly quantify enzyme abundance, the profile of expressed cellulase genes indicates that both hydrolytic and oxidative degradation is taking place.
The fungal symbiont of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants can degrade a large range of plant polymers, but the conversion of cellulose, hemicellulose, and part of the pectin occurs primarily towards the end of the decomposition process, i.e. in the bottom section of the fungus garden. These conversions are likely to provide nutrients for the fungus itself rather than for the ants, whose colony growth and reproductive success are limited by proteins obtained from ingesting fungal gongylidia. These specialized hyphal tips are hardly produced in the bottom section of fungus gardens, consistent with the ants discarding old fungal biomass from this part of the garden. The transcripts that we found suggest that actively growing mycelium in the bottom of gardens helps to maintain an optimal water balance to avoid hyphal disintegration, so the ants can ultimately discard healthy rather than decaying and diseased garden material, and to buffer negative effects of varying availability and quality of substrate across the seasons.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Lineages of insect pathogenic fungi are concentrated in three major clades: Hypocreales (several genera), Entomophthoromycota (orders Entomophthorales and Neozygitales), and Onygenales (genus Ascosphaera). Our review focuses on aspects of the evolutionary biology of these fungi that have remained underemphasized in previous reviews. To ensure integration with the better-known domains of insect pathology research, we followed a conceptual framework formulated by Tinbergen, asking complementary questions on mechanism, ontogeny, phylogeny, and adaptation. We aim to provide an introduction to the merits of evolutionary approaches for readers with a background in invertebrate pathology research and to make the insect pathogenic fungi more accessible as model systems for evolutionary biologists. We identify a number of questions in which fundamental research can offer novel insights into the evolutionary forces that have shaped host specialization and life-history traits such as spore number and size, somatic growth rate, toxin production, and interactions with host immune systems. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Entomology Volume 59 is January 07, 2014. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/catalog/pubdates.aspx for revised estimates.
Annual Review of Entomology 10/2013; · 13.59 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: The ants are extraordinary in having evolved many lineages that exploit closely related ant societies as social parasites, but social parasitism by distantly related ants is rare. Here we document the interaction dynamics among a Sericomyrmex fungus-growing ant host, a permanently associated parasitic guest ant of the genus Megalomyrmex, and a raiding agro-predator of the genus Gnamptogenys. We show experimentally that the guest ants protect their host colonies against agro-predator raids using alkaloid venom that is much more potent than the biting defenses of the host ants. Relatively few guest ants are sufficient to kill raiders that invariably exterminate host nests without a cohabiting guest ant colony. We also show that the odor of guest ants discourages raider scouts from recruiting nestmates to host colonies. Our results imply that Sericomyrmex fungus-growers obtain a net benefit from their costly guest ants behaving as a functional soldier caste to meet lethal threats from agro-predator raiders. The fundamentally different life histories of the agro-predators and guest ants appear to facilitate their coexistence in a negative frequency-dependent manner. Because a guest ant colony is committed for life to a single host colony, the guests would harm their own interests by not defending the host that they continue to exploit. This conditional mutualism is analogous to chronic sickle cell anemia enhancing the resistance to malaria and to episodes in human history when mercenary city defenders offered either net benefits or imposed net costs, depending on the level of threat from invading armies.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 09/2013; · 9.74 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: The stability of mutualistic interactions is likely to be affected by the genetic diversity of symbionts that compete for the same functional niche. Fungus-growing (attine) ants have multiple complex symbioses and thus provide ample opportunities to address questions of symbiont specificity and diversity. Among the partners are Actinobacteria of the genus Pseudonocardia that are maintained on the ant cuticle to produce antibiotics, primarily against a fungal parasite of the mutualistic gardens. The symbiosis has been assumed to be a hallmark of evolutionary stability, but this notion has been challenged by culturing and sequencing data indicating an unpredictably high diversity. We used 454 pyrosequencing of 16S rRNA to estimate the diversity of the cuticular bacterial community of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior and other fungus-growing ants from Gamboa, Panama. Both field and laboratory samples of the same colonies were collected, the latter after colonies had been kept under laboratory conditions for up to 10 years. We show that bacterial communities are highly colony-specific and stable over time. The majority of colonies (25/26) had a single dominant Pseudonocardia strain, and only two strains were found in the Gamboa population across 17 years, confirming an earlier study. The microbial community on newly hatched ants consisted almost exclusively of a single strain of Pseudonocardia while other Actinobacteria were identified on older, foraging ants in varying but usually much lower abundances. These findings are consistent with recent theory predicting that mixtures of antibiotic-producing bacteria can remain mutualistic when dominated by a single vertically transmitted and resource-demanding strain.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Genomes of eusocial insects code for dramatic examples of phenotypic plasticity and social organization. We compared the genomes of seven ants, the honeybee, and various solitary insects to examine whether eusocial lineages share distinct features of genomic organization. Each ant lineage contains ~4,000 novel genes, but only 64 of these genes are conserved among all seven ants. Many gene families have been expanded in ants, notably those involved in chemical communication (e.g., desaturases and odorant receptors). Alignment of the ant genomes revealed reduced purifying selection compared to Drosophila without significantly reduced synteny. Correspondingly, ant genomes exhibit dramatic divergence of non-coding regulatory elements, however extant conserved regions are enriched for novel non-coding RNAs and transcription factor binding sites. Comparison of orthologous gene promoters between eusocial and solitary species revealed significant regulatory evolution in both cis (e.g., CREB) and trans (e.g., Forkhead) for nearly 2000 genes, many of which exhibit phenotypic plasticity. Our results emphasize that genomic changes can occur remarkably fast in ants, as two recently diverged leaf-cutter ant species exhibit faster accumulation of species-specific genes and greater divergence in regulatory elements compared to other ants or Drosophila. Thus, while the "socio-genomes" of ants and the honeybee are broadly characterized by a pervasive pattern of divergence in gene composition and regulation, they preserve lineage-specific regulatory features linked to eusociality. We propose that changes in gene regulation played a key role in the origins of insect eusociality, whereas changes in gene composition were more relevant for lineage-specific eusocial adaptations.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Introduction
Limited data exist on long-term health-consequences of maternal preeclampsia for offspring. Objectives. We investigated long-term offspring morbidity following preeclampsia and related these data to the time from diagnosis to delivery.
We performed a registry based retrospective cohort study in Denmark in the years 1977–2007. The primary exposure was preeclamptic days from diagnosis to delivery. We analyzed 6 gestational age groups separately. The outcomes were groups of later disease diagnoses in offspring.
We included 758,524 singleton offspring who had accumulated 3,537,525 medical diagnoses. Offspring delivered by severely preeclamptic women between 28 and 33 weeks had an increased risk of endocrine disorders (HR 1.46; 95% CI 1.09–1.96) compared to normotensive pregnancies, independent of days between diagnosis and delivery (HR 1.000; 95% CI 0.993–1.006). Offspring delivered by mildly preeclamptic women between 37 and 38 weeks had an increased risk of behavioral disorders (HR 1.19; 95% CI 1.05–1.37) and this risk was dependent on days since diagnosis (HR 1.006; 1.001–1.011). In general, after 37–38 weeks, days from diagnosis to delivery increased the risk of later diagnoses in most disease groups.
Offspring from preeclamptic pregnancies have increased risks of various later diseases. The time between diagnosis and delivery modified these risks only slightly, but it seems prudent not to prolong preeclamptic pregnancies after 38 weeks.
Pregnancy Hypertension: An International Journal of Women's Cardiovascular Health. 04/2013; 3(2):65.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Social insects in general and leaf-cutting ants in particular have increased selection pressures on their innate immune system due to their social lifestyle and monoclonality of the symbiotic fungal cultivar. As this symbiosis is obligate for both parties, prophylactic behavioural defences against infections are expected to increase either ant survival or fungus-garden survival, but also to possibly trade off when specific infections differ in potential danger. We examined the effectiveness of prophylactic behaviours and modulations of innate immune defences by a combination of inoculation bioassays and genome-wide transcriptomic studies (RNA-Seq), using an ant pathogen (Metarhizium brunneum) and a fungus-garden pathogen (Escovopsis weberi) and administering inoculations both directly and indirectly (via the symbiotic partner). Upon detection of pathogen conidia, ant workers responded by increasing both general activity and the frequency of specific defence behaviours (self-grooming, allo-grooming, garden-grooming) independent of the pathogen encountered. This trend was also evident in the patterns of gene expression change. Both direct and indirect (via fungus garden) inoculations with Metarhizium induced a general up-regulation of gene expression, including a number of well-known immune-related genes. In contrast, direct inoculation of the fungus garden by Escovopsis induced an overall down-regulation of ant gene expression, whereas indirect inoculation (via the ants) did not, suggesting that increased activity of ants to remove this fungus-garden pathogen is costly and involves trade-offs with the activation of other physiological pathways.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Abstract Multipartner mutualisms have potentially complex dynamics, with compensatory responses when one partner is lost or relegated to a minor role. Fungus-growing ants (Attini) are mutualistic associates of basidiomycete fungi and antibiotic-producing actinomycete bacteria; the former are attacked by specialized fungi (Escovopsis) and diverse generalist microbes. Ants deploy biochemical defenses from bacteria and metapleural glands (MGs) and express different behaviors to control contaminants. We studied four Trachymyrmex species that differed in relative abundance of actinomycetes to understand interactions among antimicrobial tactics that are contingent on the nature of infection. MG grooming rate and actinomycete abundance were negatively correlated. The two species with high MG grooming rates or abundant actinomycetes made relatively little use of behavioral defenses. Conversely, the two species with relatively modest biochemical defenses relied heavily on behavior. Trade-offs suggest that related species can evolutionarily diverge to rely on different defense mechanisms against the same threat. Neither bacterial symbionts nor MG secretions thus appear to be essential for mounting defenses against the specialized pathogen Escovopsis, but reduced investment in one of these defense modes tends to increase investment in the other.
The American Naturalist 01/2013; 181(4). · 4.55 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: When helping behaviour is costly, Hamiltonian logic implies that animals need to direct helpful acts towards kin, so that indirect fitness benefits justify the costs. We revisit inferences about nepotism and aggression in Hamilton's 1964 paper to argue that he overestimated the general significance of nepotism, but that other issues that he raised continue to suggest novel research agendas today. We now know that nepotism in eusocial insects is rare, because variation in genetic recognition cues is insufficient. A lower proportion of individuals breeding and larger clutch sizes selecting for a more uniform colony odour may explain this. Irreversible worker sterility can induce both the fiercest possible aggression and the highest likelihood of helping random distant kin, but these Hamiltonian contentions still await large-scale testing in social animals.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Eusocial hymenopteran males have exceptionally high levels of ejaculate quality, which are assumed to result from extreme selection pressures for pre- and postcopulatory malemale competition and the necessity to retain viable sperm after years of storage in female (queen) spermathecae. We hypothesized that the production of high-quality sperm carries substantial costs so that fertility of males may be compromised by stress factors when they are operating at their physiological limits. To test this, we performed a series of experiments using honeybees as our model system, to establish possible effects of male age on sperm quality and to evaluate effects of elevated temperatures, food deprivation during sexual maturation, and immune challenges. We found that sperm viability decreases with male age but that males of some colonies were better able to delay ejaculate senescence than others. Exposure to elevated temperatures and wounding both significantly decreased male fecundity, but protein deficiency after hatching did not. This suggests that investment in drones is completed at pupation and that sexual maturation does not require additional protein feeding. The sensitivity of drone fitness to stress factors related to temperature and immune system activation illustrates that hygienic monitoring and active thermoregulation by workers are essential for colony-level reproductive success. These results underline that honeybee drones have been under strong selection for extreme specialization on reproductive performance and that this precludes any exposure to the stressful conditions that foraging workers normally experience.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Obligate eusociality with distinct caste phenotypes has evolved from strictly monogamous sub-social ancestors in ants, some bees, some wasps and some termites. This implies that no lineage reached the most advanced form of social breeding, unless helpers at the nest gained indirect fitness values via siblings that were identical to direct fitness via offspring. The complete lack of re-mating promiscuity equalizes sex-specific variances in reproductive success. Later, evolutionary developments towards multiple queen-mating retained lifetime commitment between sexual partners, but reduced male variance in reproductive success relative to female's, similar to the most advanced vertebrate cooperative breeders. Here, I (i) discuss some of the unique and highly peculiar mating system adaptations of eusocial insects; (ii) address ambiguities that remained after earlier reviews and extend the monogamy logic to the evolution of soldier castes; (iii) evaluate the evidence for indirect fitness benefits driving the dynamics of (in)vertebrate cooperative breeding, while emphasizing the fundamental differences between obligate eusociality and cooperative breeding; (iv) infer that lifetime commitment is a major driver towards higher levels of organization in bodies, colonies and mutualisms. I argue that evolutionary informative definitions of social systems that separate direct and indirect fitness benefits facilitate transparency when testing inclusive fitness theory.
Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences 01/2013; 368(1613):20120050. · 6.23 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Preeclampsia is a major cause of perinatal mortality and disease affecting 5-10% of all pregnancies worldwide, but its etiology remains poorly understood despite considerable research effort. Parent-offspring conflict theory suggests that such hypertensive disorders of pregnancy may have evolved through the ability of fetal genes to increase maternal blood pressure as this enhances general nutrient supply. However, such mechanisms for inducing hypertension in pregnancy would need to incur sufficient offspring health benefits to compensate for the obvious risks for maternal and fetal health towards the end of pregnancy in order to explain why these disorders have not been removed by natural selection in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We analyzed >750,000 live births in the Danish National Patient Registry and all registered medical diagnoses for up to 30 years after birth. We show that offspring exposed to pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) in trimester 1 had significantly reduced overall later-life disease risks, but increased risks when PIH exposure started or developed as preeclampsia in later trimesters. Similar patterns were found for first-year mortality. These results suggest that early PIH leading to improved postpartum survival and health represents a balanced compromise between the reproductive interests of parents and offspring, whereas later onset of PIH may reflect an unbalanced parent-offspring conflict at the detriment of maternal and offspring health.
PLoS ONE 01/2013; 8(2):e56821. · 3.73 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Leaf-cutting ants combine large-scale herbivory with fungus farming to sustain advanced societies. Their stratified colonies are major evolutionary achievements and serious agricultural pests, but the crucial adaptations that allowed this mutualism to become the prime herbivorous component of neotropical ecosystems has remained elusive. Here we show how coevolutionary adaptation of a specific enzyme in the fungal symbiont has helped leaf-cutting ants overcome plant defensive phenolic compounds. We identify nine putative laccase-coding genes in the fungal genome of Leucocoprinus gongylophorus cultivated by the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior. One of these laccases (LgLcc1) is highly expressed in the specialized hyphal tips (gongylidia) that the ants preferentially eat, and we confirm that these ingested laccase molecules pass through the ant guts and remain active when defecated on the leaf pulp that the ants add to their gardens. This accurate deposition ensures that laccase activity is highest where new leaf material enters the fungus garden, but where fungal mycelium is too sparse to produce extracellular enzymes in sufficient quantities to detoxify phenolic compounds. Phylogenetic analysis of LgLcc1 ortholog sequences from symbiotic and free-living fungi revealed significant positive selection in the ancestral lineage that gave rise to the gongylidia-producing symbionts of leaf-cutting ants and their non-leaf-cutting ant sister group. Our results are consistent with fungal preadaptation and subsequent modification of a particular laccase enzyme for the detoxification of secondary plant compounds during the transition to active herbivory in the ancestor of leaf-cutting ants between 8 and 12 Mya.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 12/2012; · 9.74 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Division of labour is the hallmark of advanced societies, because specialization carries major efficiency benefits in spite of costs owing to reduced individual flexibility . The trade-off between efficiency and flexibility is expressed throughout the social insects, where facultative social species have small colonies and reversible caste roles and advanced eusocial species have permanently fixed queen and worker castes. This usually implies that queens irreversibly specialize on reproductive tasks . Here, we report an exception to this rule by showing that virgin queens (gynes) of the advanced eusocial leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior switch to carrying out worker tasks such as brood care and colony defence when they fail to mate and disperse. These behaviours allow them to obtain indirect fitness benefits (through assisting the reproduction of their mother) after their direct fitness options (their own reproduction) have become moot. We hypothesize that this flexibility could (re-)evolve secondarily because these ants only feed on fungal mycelium and thus could not benefit from cannibalising redundant gynes, and because queens have retained behavioural repertoires for foraging, nursing, and defense, which they naturally express during colony founding.
Current biology: CB 09/2012; 22(17):R671-3. · 10.99 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Ants have paired metapleural glands (MGs) to produce secretions for prophylactic hygiene. These exocrine glands are particularly well developed in leaf-cutting ants, but whether the ants can actively regulate MG secretion is unknown. In a set of controlled experiments using conidia of five fungi, we show that the ants adjust the amount of MG secretion to the virulence of the fungus with which they are infected. We further applied fixed volumes of MG secretion of ants challenged with constant conidia doses to agar mats of the same fungal species. This showed that inhibition halos were significantly larger for ants challenged with virulent and mild pathogens/weeds than for controls and Escovopsis-challenged ants. We conclude that the MG defence system of leaf-cutting ants has characteristics reminiscent of an additional cuticular immune system, with specific and non-specific components, of which some are constitutive and others induced.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 08/2012; · 5.68 Impact Factor
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Clonal organisms with occasional sex are important for our general understanding of the costs and benefits that maintain sexual reproduction. Cyclically parthenogenetic aphids are highly variable in their frequency of sexual reproduction. However, studies have mostly focused on free-living aphids above ground, whereas dispersal constraints and dependence on ant-tending may differentially affect the costs and benefits of sex in subterranean aphids. Here, we studied reproductive mode and dispersal in a community of root aphids that are obligately associated with the ant Lasius flavus. We assessed the genetic population structure of four species (Geoica utricularia, Tetraneura ulmi, Forda marginata and Forda formicaria) in a Dutch population and found that all species reproduce predominantly if not exclusively asexually, so that populations consist of multiple clonal lineages. We show that population viscosity is high and winged aphids rare, consistent with infrequent horizontal transmission between ant host colonies. The absence of the primary host shrub (Pistacia) may explain the absence of sex in three of the studied species, but elm trees (Ulmus) that are primary hosts of the fourth species (T. ulmi) occurred within a few km of the study population. We discuss the extent to which obligate ant-tending and absence of primary hosts may have affected selection for permanent parthenogenesis, and we highlight the need for further study of these aphids in Southern Europe where primary hosts may occur close to L. flavus populations, so that all four root aphid species would have realistic opportunities for completing their sexual life cycle.
[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: Mutualistic interactions are wide-spread but the mechanisms underlying their evolutionary stability and ecological dynamics remain poorly understood. Cultivation mutualisms in which hosts consume symbionts occur in phylogenetically diverse groups, but often have symbiont monocultures for each host. This is consistent with the prediction that symbionts should avoid coexistence with other strains so that host services continue to benefit relatives, but it is less clear whether hosts should always favor monocultures and what mechanisms they might have to manipulate symbiont diversity. Few mutualisms have been studied in sufficient genetic detail to address these issues, so we decided to characterize symbiont diversity in the complex mutualism between multiple root aphid species and Lasius flavus ants. After showing elsewhere that three of these aphid species have low dispersal and mostly if not exclusively asexual reproduction, we here investigate aphid diversity within and between ant nest mounds. RESULTS: The three focal species (Geoica utricularia, Forda marginata and Tetraneura ulmi) had considerable clonal diversity at the population level. Yet more than half of the ant mounds contained just a single aphid species, a significantly higher percentage than expected from a random distribution. Over 60% of these single-species mounds had a single aphid clone, and clones tended to persist across subsequent years. Whenever multiple species/clones cooccurred in the same mound, they were spatially separated with more than 95% of the aphid chambers containing individuals of a single clone. CONCLUSIONS: L. flavus "husbandry" is characterized by low aphid "livestock" diversity per colony, especially at the nest-chamber level, but it lacks the exclusive monocultures known from other cultivation mutualisms. The ants appear to eat most of the early instar aphids, so that adult aphids are unlikely to face limited phloem resources and scramble competition with other aphids. We suggest that such culling of carbohydrate-providing symbionts for protein ingestion may maintain maximal host yield per aphid while also benefitting the domesticated aphids as long as their clone-mates reproduce successfully. The cost-benefit logic of this type of polyculture husbandry has striking analogies with human farming practices based on slaughtering young animals for meat to maximize milk-production by a carefully regulated adult livestock population.