The effect of metapleural gland secretion on the growth of a mutualistic bacterium on the cuticle of leaf-cutting ants

Naturwissenschaften. 2003 Sep;90(9):406-9. doi: 10.1007/s00114-003-0450-3. Epub 2003 Aug 12.


In Acromyrmex octospinosus leaf-cutting ants the metapleural glands produce an array of antibiotic compounds that serve as a general defence against unwanted microbes on the cuticle. Leaf-cutting ants also grow mutualistic Pseudonocardiaceae bacteria on their cuticle that produce antibiotics controlling a microfungal parasite of their fungus gardens. Interaction between this bacterium and gland secretion therefore seems unavoidable. We document the typical development of bacterial growth on the cuticle of young major workers, show that growth starts a few days after eclosion, and that the maximal cover is reached after 2-3 weeks and gradually declines when workers mature. Experimental closure of the metapleural glands had no effect on the initial exponential growth phase of the bacterium, but significantly reduced the cover during the decline phase. The age-dependent abundance of the bacterium and its partial dependence on metapleural gland secretion support the hypothesis that the abundance of this mutualist is actively regulated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Actinomycetales / growth & development*
  • Animals
  • Ants / physiology*
  • Plant Leaves / parasitology*
  • Sebaceous Glands / metabolism*