Ecology and Evolution of Insect-Fungus Mutualisms

Annu Rev Entomol. 2020 Jan 7;65:431-455. doi: 10.1146/annurev-ento-011019-024910. Epub 2019 Oct 14.


The evolution of a mutualism requires reciprocal interactions whereby one species provides a service that the other species cannot perform or performs less efficiently. Services exchanged in insect-fungus mutualisms include nutrition, protection, and dispersal. In ectosymbioses, which are the focus of this review, fungi can be consumed by insects or can degrade plant polymers or defensive compounds, thereby making a substrate available to insects. They can also protect against environmental factors and produce compounds antagonistic to microbial competitors. Insects disperse fungi and can also provide fungal growth substrates and protection. Insect-fungus mutualisms can transition from facultative to obligate, whereby each partner is no longer viable on its own. Obligate dependency has (a) resulted in the evolution of morphological adaptations in insects and fungi, (b) driven the evolution of social behaviors in some groups of insects, and (c) led to the loss of sexuality in some fungal mutualists.

Keywords: ambrosia beetles; attine ants; cooperation; insect agriculture; symbiosis; termites.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Fungi / physiology*
  • Insecta / microbiology*
  • Symbiosis*