Streptomyces bacteria are ubiquitous in soil, conferring the characteristic earthy smell, and they have an important ecological role in the turnover of organic material. More recently, a new picture has begun to emerge in which streptomycetes are not in all cases simply free-living soil bacteria but have also evolved to live in symbiosis with plants, fungi and animals. Furthermore, much of the chemical diversity of secondary metabolites produced by Streptomyces species has most likely evolved as a direct result of their interactions with other organisms. Here we review what is currently known about the role of streptomycetes as symbionts with fungi, plants and animals. These interactions can be parasitic, as is the case for scab-causing streptomycetes, which infect plants, and the Streptomyces species Streptomyces somaliensis and Streptomyces sudanensis that infect humans. However, in most cases they are beneficial and growth promoting, as is the case with many insects, plants and marine animals that use streptomycete-produced antibiotics to protect themselves against infection. This is an exciting and newly emerging field of research that will become increasingly important as the search for new antibiotics switches to unusual and under-explored environments.
© 2011 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved.