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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Jul 7;276(1666):2419-26. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0196. Epub 2009 Apr 1.

Two fungal symbioses collide: endophytic fungi are not welcome in leaf-cutting ant gardens.

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  • 1Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado 0843-03092, Balboa, Ancon, Republic of Panama.


Interactions among the component members of different symbioses are not well studied. For example, leaf-cutting ants maintain an obligate symbiosis with their fungal garden, while the leaf material they provide to their garden is usually filled with endophytic fungi. The ants and their cultivar may interact with hundreds of endophytic fungal species, yet little is known about these interactions. Experimental manipulations showed that (i) ants spend more time cutting leaves from a tropical vine, Merremia umbellata, with high versus low endophyte densities, (ii) ants reduce the amount of endophytic fungi in leaves before planting them in their gardens, (iii) the ants' fungal cultivar inhibits the growth of most endophytes tested. Moreover, the inhibition by the ants' cultivar was relatively greater for more rapidly growing endophyte strains that could potentially out-compete or overtake the garden. Our results suggest that endophytes are not welcome in the garden, and that the ants and their cultivar combine ant hygiene behaviour with fungal inhibition to reduce endophyte activity in the nest.

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