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Proc Biol Sci. 2019 Aug 14;286(1908):20191026. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2019.1026. Epub 2019 Aug 7.

Azteca ants maintain unique microbiomes across functionally distinct nest chambers.

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Department of Soil and Water Systems, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID 83844, USA.
Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695, USA.
The Biomimicry Center, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287, USA.
Department of Biology, Mary Baldwin University, Staunton, VA 24401, USA.
School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287, USA.
Bayer Crop Science Division, Saint Louis, MO 63146, USA.
Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark.
Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


The microbiome of built structures has considerable influence over an inhabitant's well-being, yet the vast majority of research has focused on human-built structures. Ants are well-known architects, capable of constructing elaborate dwellings, the microbiome of which is underexplored. Here, we explore the bacterial and fungal microbiomes in functionally distinct chambers within and outside the nests of Azteca alfari ants in Cecropia peltata trees. We predicted that A. alfari colonies (1) maintain distinct microbiomes within their nests compared to the surrounding environment, (2) maintain distinct microbiomes among nest chambers used for different functions, and (3) limit both ant and plant pathogens inside their nests. In support of these predictions, we found that internal and external nest sampling locations had distinct microbial communities, and A. alfari maintained lower bacterial richness in their 'nurseries'. While putative animal pathogens were suppressed in chambers that ants actively inhabited, putative plant pathogens were not, which does not support our hypothesis that A. alfari defends its host trees against microbial antagonists. Our results show that ants influence microbial communities inside their nests similar to studies of human homes. Unlike humans, ants limit the bacteria in their nurseries and potentially prevent the build-up of insect-infecting pathogens. These results highlight the importance of documenting how indoor microbiomes differ among species, which might improve our understanding of how to promote indoor health in human dwellings.


Azteca; Cecropia; microbe; microbiome; myrmecophyte


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