The role of symbiont genetic distance and potential adaptability in host preference towards Pseudonocardia symbionts in Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants

J Insect Sci. 2011:11:120. doi: 10.1673/031.011.12001.


Fungus-growing ants display symbiont preference in behavioral assays, both towards the fungus they cultivate for food and Actinobacteria they maintain on their cuticle for antibiotic production against parasites. These Actinobacteria, genus Pseudonocardia Henssen (Pseudonocardiacea: Actinomycetales), help defend the ants' fungal mutualist from specialized parasites. In Acromyrmex Mayr (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) leaf-cutting ants, individual colonies maintain either a single or a few strains of Pseudonocardia, and the symbiont is primarily vertically transmitted between generations by colony-founding queens. A recent report found that Acromyrmex workers are able to differentiate between their native Pseudonocardia strain and non-native strains isolated from sympatric or allopatric Acromyrmex species, and show preference for their native strain. Here we explore worker preference when presented with two non-native strains, elucidating the role of genetic distance on preference between strains and Pseudonocardia origin. Our findings suggest that ants tend to prefer bacteria more closely related to their native bacterium and that genetic similarity is probably more important than whether symbionts are ant-associated or free-living. Preliminary findings suggest that when continued exposure to a novel Pseudonocardia strain occurs, ant symbiont preference is potentially adaptable, with colonies apparently being able to alter symbiont preference over time. These findings are discussed in relation to the role of adaptive recognition, potential ecological flexibility in symbiont preference, and more broadly, in relation to self versus non-self recognition.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Actinomycetales / genetics*
  • Animals
  • Ants / microbiology*
  • Choice Behavior
  • Symbiosis*