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Am Nat. 2002 Oct;160 Suppl 4:S67-98. doi: 10.1086/342084.

Ant versus fungus versus mutualism: ant-cultivar conflict and the deconstruction of the attine ant-fungus symbiosis.

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  • 1Section of Integrative Biology, Patterson Labs, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712, USA.


A century of research on fungus-growing ants (Attini, Formicidae) has ignored the cultivated fungi as passive domesticates and viewed the attine fungicultural symbiosis as an integrated unit dominated by the evolutionary interests of the ant farmers. This article takes a different perspective and explores first the evolutionary interests and leverages of the fungal cultivars, then dissects eight potential evolutionary conflicts between ants and cultivars. Three types of ant-cultivar conflict are examined in depth. First, ant-cultivar conflict over the ant sex ratio is predicted because the cultivars are dispersed by female foundresses but not by males; cultivars thus may be selected to bias the ant sex ratio toward females. Second, ant-cultivar conflict over fungal sexual reproduction exists if the fungi are able to escape from the symbiosis and live independently, as is implied by phylogenetic analyses of the fungi; this conflict is exacerbated in colonies that experience queen death or senescence. A literature review reveals that sexual fruiting of attine cultivars is more common than has been traditionally realized and often occurs in moribund colonies. Third, the routine transplanting of fungal mycelium by ants could generate, through sensory-biased symbiont choice, selection favoring fungal features that increase the likelihood of transplantation within nests (symbiont drive) but that are detrimental to the survival of the whole colony. A balanced perspective incorporating both ant and fungal interests emerges as a more appropriate framework than the traditional myrmicocentric perspective. Indeed, the attine symbiosis offers unique experimental opportunities (cultivar switch experiments) to unravel the evolutionary dynamics of conflict and cooperation between ant and fungal partners.

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