The evolution of abdominal microbiomes in fungus-growing ants

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The attine ants are a monophyletic lineage that switched to fungus farming ca. 55–60 MYA. They have become a model for the study of complex symbioses after additional fungal and bacterial symbionts were discovered, but their abdominal endosymbiotic bacteria remain largely unknown. Here, we present a comparative microbiome analysis of endosymbiotic bacteria spanning the entire phylogenetic tree. We show that, across 17 representative sympatric species from eight genera sampled in Panama, abdominal microbiomes are dominated by Mollicutes, α- and γ-Proteobacteria, and Actinobacteria. Bacterial abundances increase from basal to crown branches in the phylogeny reflecting a shift towards putative specialized and abundant abdominal microbiota after the ants domesticated gongylidia-bearing cultivars, but before the origin of industrial-scale farming based on leaf-cutting herbivory. This transition coincided with the ancestral single colonization event of Central/North America ca. 20 MYA, documented in a recent phylogenomic study showing that almost the entire crown group of the higher attine ants, including the leaf-cutting ants, evolved there and not in South America. Several bacterial species are located in gut tissues or abdominal organs of the evolutionarily derived, but not the basal attine ants. The composition of abdominal microbiomes appears to be affected by the presence/absence of defensive antibiotic-producing actinobacterial biofilms on the worker ants' cuticle, but the significance of this association remains unclear. The patterns of diversity, abundance and sensitivity of the abdominal microbiomes that we obtained explore novel territory in the comparative analysis of attine fungus farming symbioses and raise new questions for further in-depth research.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)879-899
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - 2019

    Research areas

  • 16S-MiSeq sequencing, Actinobacteria, Attini, FISH confocal microscopy, microbiota, Mollicutes, α-Proteobacteria

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