Symbiotic complexity: discovery of a fifth symbiont in the attine ant-microbe symbiosis

Biol Lett. 2007 Oct 22;3(5):501-4. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0253.


The fungus-growing ant-microbe mutualism is a classic example of organismal complexity generated through symbiotic association. The ants have an ancient obligate mutualism with fungi they cultivate for food. The success of the mutualism is threatened by specialized fungal parasites (Escovopsis) that consume the cultivated fungus. To defend their nutrient-rich garden against infection, the ants have a second mutualism with bacteria (Pseudonocardia), which produce antibiotics that inhibit the garden parasite Escovopsis. Here we reveal the presence of a fourth microbial symbiont associated with fungus-growing ants: black yeasts (Ascomycota; Phialophora). We show that black yeasts are commonly associated with fungus-growing ants, occurring throughout their geographical distribution. Black yeasts grow on the ants' cuticle, specifically localized to where the mutualistic bacteria are cultured. Molecular phylogenetic analyses reveal that the black yeasts form a derived monophyletic lineage associated with the phylogenetic diversity of fungus growers. The prevalence, distribution, localization and monophyly indicate that the black yeast is a fifth symbiont within the attine ant-microbe association, further exemplifying the complexity of symbiotic associations.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants / microbiology*
  • Ascomycota / classification*
  • Phylogeny
  • Symbiosis*