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J Chem Ecol. 2013 Jul;39(7):978-88. doi: 10.1007/s10886-013-0304-1. Epub 2013 Jun 19.

Maternal and environmental effects on symbiont-mediated antimicrobial defense.

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  • 1Insect Symbiosis Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knoell-Str. 8, 07745, Jena, Germany.


Bacteria produce a remarkable diversity of bioactive molecules with antimicrobial properties. Despite the importance of such compounds for human medicine, little is known about the factors influencing antibiotic production in natural environments. Recently, several insects have been found to benefit from symbiont-produced antimicrobial compounds for defense against pathogenic microbes. In the European beewolf, Philanthus triangulum (Hymenoptera, Crabronidae), bacteria of the genus Streptomyces provide protection against pathogens by producing antimicrobials on the larval cocoon during hibernation, thereby significantly enhancing the survival probability of the beewolf larva. To investigate the effects of abiotic and biotic factors on antibiotic production, we exposed beewolf cocoons to different environmental conditions and quantified the amount of Streptomyces-produced antibiotics by using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). The results revealed no significant influence of temperature, humidity, or pathogen load on the antibiotic amount, indicating that antibiotic production is not affected by current environmental conditions but rather may be optimized to serve as a reliable long-term protection during the unpredictable phase of beewolf hibernation. However, the amount of antibiotics was positively correlated with the symbiont population size on the cocoon, which in turn is affected by the number of Streptomyces cells provided by the mother into the brood cell. Additionally, we found a positive correlation between the amount of hydrocarbons and the number and length of bacterial cells in the antennal gland secretion, suggesting that maternal investment affects symbiont growth and, thus, antibiotic production on the larval cocoon.

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