Bacterial mutualists generate major fitness benefits for eukaryotes, reshaping the host phenotype and its interactions with the environment. Yet, microbial mutualist populations are predicted to generate mutants that defect from providing costly services to hosts while maintaining the capacity to exploit host resources. Here, we examined the mutualist service of symbiotic nitrogen fixation in a metapopulation of root-nodulating Bradyrhizobium spp. that associate with the native legume Acmispon strigosus. We quantified mutualism traits of 85 Bradyrhizobium isolates gathered from a 700 km transect in California spanning 10 sampled A. strigosus populations. We clonally inoculated each Bradyrhizobium isolate onto A. strigosus hosts and quantified nodulation capacity and net effects of infection, including host growth and isotopic nitrogen concentration. Six Bradyrhizobium isolates from five populations were categorized as ineffective because they formed nodules but did not enhance host growth via nitrogen fixation. Six additional isolates from three populations failed to form root nodules. Phylogenetic reconstruction inferred two types of mutualism breakdown, including three to four independent losses of effectiveness and five losses of nodulation capacity on A. strigosus. The evolutionary and genomic drivers of these mutualism breakdown events remain poorly understood.
Keywords: cheating; evolutionary instability; host control; interspecific conflict; mutualism breakdown.
Conflict of interest statement
We declare we have no competing interests.
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