A community of ants, fungi, and bacteria: a multilateral approach to studying symbiosis

Annu Rev Microbiol. 2001:55:357-80. doi: 10.1146/annurev.micro.55.1.357.


The ancient and highly evolved mutualism between fungus-growing ants and their fungi is a textbook example of symbiosis. The ants carefully tend the fungus, which serves as their main food source, and traditionally are believed to be so successful at fungal cultivation that they are able to maintain the fungus free of microbial pathogens. This assumption is surprising in light of theories on the evolution of parasitism, especially for those species of ants that have been clonally propagating their cultivars for millions of years. Recent work has established that, as theoretically predicted, the gardens of fungus-growing ants are host to a specialized, virulent, and highly evolved fungal pathogen in the genus Escovopsis. In addition, the ants have evolved a mutualistic association with filamentous bacteria (actinomycetes) that produce antibiotics that suppress the growth of Escovopsis. Thus, the attine symbiosis appears to be a coevolutionary "arms race" between the garden parasite Escovopsis on the one hand and the ant-fungus-actinomycete tripartite mutualism on the other. These recent findings indicate that microbes may be key components in the regulation of other symbiotic associations between higher organisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Actinomycetales / metabolism
  • Actinomycetales / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / biosynthesis
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Ants / parasitology
  • Ants / physiology*
  • Ascomycota / drug effects
  • Ascomycota / pathogenicity
  • Fungi / growth & development*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions
  • Symbiosis*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents