Fungus-growing termites (subfamily Macrotermitinae) mix plant forage with asexual spores of their plant-degrading fungal symbiont Termitomyces in their guts and deposit this blend in fungus comb structures, within which the plant matter is degraded. As Termitomyces grows, it produces nodules with asexual spores, which the termites feed on. Since all comb material passes through termite guts, it is inevitable that gut bacteria are also deposited in the comb, but it has remained unknown which bacteria are deposited and whether distinct comb bacterial communities are sustained. Using high-throughput sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene, we explored the bacterial community compositions of 33 fungus comb samples from four termite species (three genera) collected at four South African geographic locations in 2011 and 2013. We identified 33 bacterial phyla, with Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, and Candidate division TM7 jointly accounting for 92 % of the reads. Analyses of gut microbiotas from 25 of the 33 colonies showed that dominant fungus comb taxa originate from the termite gut. While gut communities were consistent between 2011 and 2013, comb community compositions shifted over time. These shifts did not appear to be due to changes in the taxa present, but rather due to differences in the relative abundances of primarily gut-derived bacteria within fungus combs. This indicates that fungus comb microbiotas are largely termite species-specific due to major contributions from gut deposits and also that environment affects which gut bacteria dominate comb communities at a given point in time.
Keywords: 16S rRNA sequencing; Macrotermitinae; Microbiota; Symbiosis; Termitomyces.