The pervasive influence of resident microorganisms on the phenotype of their hosts is exemplified by the intracellular bacterium Buchnera aphidicola, which provides its aphid partner with essential amino acids (EAAs). We investigated variation in the dietary requirement for EAAs among four pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) clones. Buchnera-derived nitrogen contributed to the synthesis of all EAAs for which aphid clones required a dietary supply, and to none of the EAAs for which all four clones had no dietary requirement, suggesting that low total dietary nitrogen may select for reduced synthesis of certain EAAs in some aphid clones. The sequenced Buchnera genomes showed that the EAA nutritional phenotype (i.e. the profile of dietary EAAs required by the aphid) cannot be attributed to sequence variation of Buchnera genes coding EAA biosynthetic enzymes. Metabolic modelling by flux balance analysis demonstrated that EAA output from Buchnera can be determined precisely by the flux of host metabolic precursors to Buchnera. Specifically, the four EAA nutritional phenotypes could be reproduced by metabolic models with unique profiles of host inputs, dominated by variation in supply of aspartate, homocysteine and glutamate. This suggests that the nutritional phenotype of the symbiosis is determined principally by host metabolism and transporter genes that regulate nutrient supply to Buchnera. Intraspecific variation in the nutritional phenotype of symbioses is expected to mediate partitioning of plant resources among aphid genotypes, potentially promoting the genetic subdivision of aphid populations. In this way, microbial symbioses may play an important role in the evolutionary diversification of phytophagous insects.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.