Microbial symbionts are shared between ants and their associated beetles

Environ Microbiol. 2023 Nov 15. doi: 10.1111/1462-2920.16544. Online ahead of print.


The transmission of microbial symbionts across animal species could strongly affect their biology and evolution, but our understanding of transmission patterns and dynamics is limited. Army ants (Formicidae: Dorylinae) and their hundreds of closely associated insect guest species (myrmecophiles) can provide unique insights into interspecific microbial symbiont sharing. Here, we compared the microbiota of workers and larvae of the army ant Eciton burchellii with those of 13 myrmecophile beetle species using 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing. We found that the previously characterized specialized bacterial symbionts of army ant workers were largely absent from ant larvae and myrmecophiles, whose microbial communities were usually dominated by Rickettsia, Wolbachia, Rickettsiella and/or Weissella. Strikingly, different species of myrmecophiles and ant larvae often shared identical 16S rRNA genotypes of these common bacteria. Protein-coding gene sequences confirmed the close relationship of Weissella strains colonizing army ant larvae, some workers and several myrmecophile species. Unexpectedly, these strains were also similar to strains infecting dissimilar animals inhabiting very different habitats: trout and whales. Together, our data show that closely interacting species can share much of their microbiota, and some versatile microbial species can inhabit and possibly transmit across a diverse range of hosts and environments.