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J Evol Biol. 2012 Jul;25(7):1340-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2012.02521.x. Epub 2012 Apr 24.

Dynamic Wolbachia prevalence in Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants: potential for a nutritional symbiosis.

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1
Centre for Social Evolution, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark. sbandersen@bio.ku.dk

Abstract

Wolbachia are renowned as reproductive parasites, but their phenotypic effects in eusocial insects are not well understood. We used a combination of qrt-PCR, fluorescence in situ hybridization and laser scanning confocal microscopy to evaluate the dynamics of Wolbachia infections in the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex octospinosus across developmental stages of sterile workers. We confirm that workers are infected with one or two widespread wsp genotypes of Wolbachia, show that colony prevalence is always 100% and characterize two rare recombinant genotypes. One dominant genotype is always present and most abundant, whereas another only proliferates in adult workers of some colonies and is barely detectable in larvae and pupae. An explanation may be that Wolbachia genotypes compete for host resources in immature stages while adult tissues provide substantially more niche space. Tissue-specific prevalence of the two genotypes differs, with the rarer genotype being over-represented in the adult foregut and thorax muscles. Both genotypes occur extracellularly in the foregut, suggesting an unknown mutualistic function in worker ant nutrition. Both genotypes are also abundant in the faecal fluid of the ants, suggesting that they may have extended functional phenotypes in the fungus garden that the ants manure with their own faeces.

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