Background: Molecular biological techniques are dramatically changing our view of microbial diversity in almost any environment that has so far been investigated. This study presents a systematic survey of the microbial diversity associated with a population of Acromyrmex leafcutter ants. In contrast to previous studies on social insects, which targeted specific groups of symbionts occurring in the gut (termites, Tetraponera ants) or in specialised cells (Camponotus ants) the objective of our present study was to do a total screening of all possible micro-organisms that can be found inside the bodies of these leafcutter ants.
Results: We amplified, cloned and sequenced SSU rRNA encoding gene fragments from 9 microbial groups known to have insect-associated representatives, and show that: (1) representatives of 5 out of 9 tested groups are present, (2) mostly several strains per group are present, adding up to a total of 33 different taxa. We present the microbial taxa associated with Acromymex ants in a phylogenetic context (using sequences from GenBank) to assess and illustrate to which known microorganisms they are closely related. The observed microbial diversity is discussed in the light of present knowledge on the evolutionary history of Acromyrmex leafcutter ants and their known mutualistic and parasitic symbionts.
Conclusions: The major merits of the screening approach documented here is its high sensitivity and specificity, which allowed us to identify several microorganisms that are promising candidates for further study of their interactions with Acromyrmex leafcutter ants or their gardens.