Coevolved crypts and exocrine glands support mutualistic bacteria in fungus-growing ants

Science. 2006 Jan 6;311(5757):81-3. doi: 10.1126/science.1119744.


Attine ants engage in a quadripartite symbiosis with fungi they cultivate for food, specialized garden parasites, and parasite-inhibiting bacteria. Molecular phylogenetic evidence supports an ancient host-pathogen association between the ant-cultivar mutualism and the garden parasite. Here we show that ants rear the antibiotic-producing bacteria in elaborate cuticular crypts, supported by unique exocrine glands, and that these structures have been highly modified across the ants' evolutionary history. This specialized structural evolution, together with the absence of these bacteria and modifications in other ant genera that do not grow fungus, indicate that the bacteria have an ancient and coevolved association with the ants, their fungal cultivar, and the garden parasite.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Actinomycetales / growth & development
  • Actinomycetales / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / biosynthesis
  • Antibiosis
  • Ants / anatomy & histology*
  • Ants / microbiology*
  • Ants / physiology
  • Ants / ultrastructure
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Exocrine Glands / anatomy & histology
  • Exocrine Glands / microbiology
  • Female
  • Fungi / growth & development*
  • Hypocreales / growth & development*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Phylogeny
  • Species Specificity
  • Symbiosis*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents