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Concept: Symbiosis


The “wooden-steps” hypothesis [Distel DL, et al. (2000) Nature 403:725-726] proposed that large chemosynthetic mussels found at deep-sea hydrothermal vents descend from much smaller species associated with sunken wood and other organic deposits, and that the endosymbionts of these progenitors made use of hydrogen sulfide from biogenic sources (e.g., decaying wood) rather than from vent fluids. Here, we show that wood has served not only as a stepping stone between habitats but also as a bridge between heterotrophic and chemoautotrophic symbiosis for the giant mud-boring bivalve Kuphus polythalamia This rare and enigmatic species, which achieves the greatest length of any extant bivalve, is the only described member of the wood-boring bivalve family Teredinidae (shipworms) that burrows in marine sediments rather than wood. We show that K. polythalamia harbors sulfur-oxidizing chemoautotrophic (thioautotrophic) bacteria instead of the cellulolytic symbionts that allow other shipworm species to consume wood as food. The characteristics of its symbionts, its phylogenetic position within Teredinidae, the reduction of its digestive system by comparison with other family members, and the loss of morphological features associated with wood digestion indicate that K. polythalamia is a chemoautotrophic bivalve descended from wood-feeding (xylotrophic) ancestors. This is an example in which a chemoautotrophic endosymbiosis arose by displacement of an ancestral heterotrophic symbiosis and a report of pure culture of a thioautotrophic endosymbiont.

Concepts: Algae, Bacteria, Evolution, Symbiosis, Endosymbiont, Hydrothermal vent, Bivalvia, Shipworm


Animals use a variety of escape mechanisms to increase the probability of surviving predatory attacks. Antipredator defenses can be elaborate, making their evolutionary origin unclear. Trap-jaw ants are known for their rapid and powerful predatory mandible strikes, and some species have been observed to direct those strikes at the substrate, thereby launching themselves into the air away from a potential threat. This potential escape mechanism has never been examined in a natural context. We studied the use of mandible-powered jumping in Odontomachus brunneus during their interactions with a common ant predator: pit-building antlions. We observed that while trap-jaw ant workers escaped from antlion pits by running in about half of interactions, in 15% of interactions they escaped by mandible-powered jumping. To test whether escape jumps improved individual survival, we experimentally prevented workers from jumping and measured their escape rate. Workers with unrestrained mandibles escaped from antlion pits significantly more frequently than workers with restrained mandibles. Our results indicate that some trap-jaw ant species can use mandible-powered jumps to escape from common predators. These results also provide a charismatic example of evolutionary co-option, where a trait that evolved for one function (predation) has been co-opted for another (defense).

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Antipredator adaptation, Symbiosis, Ant, Ants, Odontomachus, Odontomachus bauri


Species exposed to extreme environments often exhibit distinctive traits that help meet the demands of such habitats. Such traits could evolve independently, but under intense selective pressures of extreme environments some existing structures or behaviors might be coopted to meet specialized demands, evolving via the process of exaptation. We evaluated the potential for exaptation to have operated in the evolution of novel behaviors of the waterfall-climbing gobiid fish genus Sicyopterus. These fish use an “inching” behavior to climb waterfalls, in which an oral sucker is cyclically protruded and attached to the climbing surface. They also exhibit a distinctive feeding behavior, in which the premaxilla is cyclically protruded to scrape diatoms from the substrate. Given the similarity of these patterns, we hypothesized that one might have been coopted from the other. To evaluate this, we filmed climbing and feeding in Sicyopterus stimpsoni from Hawai'i, and measured oral kinematics for two comparisons. First, we compared feeding kinematics of S. stimpsoni with those for two suction feeding gobiids (Awaous guamensis and Lentipes concolor), assessing what novel jaw movements were required for algal grazing. Second, we quantified the similarity of oral kinematics between feeding and climbing in S. stimpsoni, evaluating the potential for either to represent an exaptation from the other. Premaxillary movements showed the greatest differences between scraping and suction feeding taxa. Between feeding and climbing, overall profiles of oral kinematics matched closely for most variables in S. stimpsoni, with only a few showing significant differences in maximum values. Although current data cannot resolve whether oral movements for climbing were coopted from feeding, or feeding movements coopted from climbing, similarities between feeding and climbing kinematics in S. stimpsoni are consistent with evidence of exaptation, with modifications, between these behaviors. Such comparisons can provide insight into the evolutionary mechanisms facilitating exploitation of extreme habitats.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Symbiosis, Difference, Behavior, Similarity, Gobiidae, Climbing


Cliff sides are extreme habitats, often sheltering a rich and unique flora. One example is the dioecious herb Borderea chouardii (Dioscoreaceae), which is a Tertiary, tropical relict, occurring only on two adjacent vertical cliffs in the world. We studied its reproductive biology, which in some aspects is extreme, especially the unusual double mutualistic role of ants as both pollinators and dispersers. We made a 2-year pollination census and four years of seed-dispersal experiments, recording flower visitors and dispersal rates. Fruit and seed set, self-sowing of seeds, seedling recruitment, and fate of seedlings from seeds sowed by different agents were scored over a period of 17 years. The ants Lasius grandis and L. cinereus were the main pollinators, whereas another ant Pheidole pallidula dispersed seeds. Thus ants functioned as double mutualists. Two thirds of all new seedlings came from self-sown seeds, and 1/3 was dispersed by ants, which gathered the seeds with their oil-rich elaiosome. Gravity played a minor role to dispersal. Both ant dispersal and self-sowing resulted in the same survival rate of seedlings. A double mutualism is a risky reproductive strategy, but B. chouardii buffers that by an unusual long-term demographic stability (some individuals exceed 300 years in lifespan) and its presence in a climatically very stable habitat, inaccessible to large herbivores. Such a combination of traits and habitat properties may explain the persistence of this relict species.

Concepts: Reproduction, Plant, Symbiosis, Seed, Plant morphology, Plant reproduction, Sexual reproduction, Mutualism


Microbial symbioses have evolved repeatedly across the tree of life, but the genetic changes underlying transitions to symbiosis are largely unknown, especially for eukaryotic microbial symbionts. We used the genus Amanita, an iconic group of mushroom-forming fungi engaged in ectomycorrhizal symbioses with plants, to identify both the origins and potential genetic changes maintaining the stability of this mutualism. A multi-gene phylogeny reveals one origin of the symbiosis within Amanita, with a single transition from saprotrophic decomposition of dead organic matter to biotrophic dependence on host plants for carbon. Associated with this transition are the losses of two cellulase genes, each of which plays a critical role in extracellular decomposition of organic matter. However a third gene, which acts at later stages in cellulose decomposition, is retained by many, but not all, ectomycorrhizal species. Experiments confirm that symbiotic Amanita species have lost the ability to grow on complex organic matter and have therefore lost the capacity to live in forest soils without carbon supplied by a host plant. Irreversible losses of decomposition pathways are likely to play key roles in the evolutionary stability of these ubiquitous mutualisms.

Concepts: Bacteria, Evolution, Life, Plant, Fungus, Symbiosis, Rhizobia, Mutualism


Despite extensive study, little is known about the origins of the mutualistic bacterial endosymbionts that inhabit approximately 10% of the world’s insects. In this study, we characterized a novel opportunistic human pathogen, designated “strain HS,” and found that it is a close relative of the insect endosymbiont Sodalis glossinidius. Our results indicate that ancestral relatives of strain HS have served as progenitors for the independent descent of Sodalis-allied endosymbionts found in several insect hosts. Comparative analyses indicate that the gene inventories of the insect endosymbionts were independently derived from a common ancestral template through a combination of irreversible degenerative changes. Our results provide compelling support for the notion that mutualists evolve from pathogenic progenitors. They also elucidate the role of degenerative evolutionary processes in shaping the gene inventories of symbiotic bacteria at a very early stage in these mutualistic associations.

Concepts: Archaea, Bacteria, Evolution, Microbiology, Symbiosis, Parasitism, Endosymbiont, Mutualism


Calcium carbonate skeletons of scleractinian corals amplify light availability to their algal symbionts by diffuse scattering, optimizing photosynthetic energy acquisition. However, the mechanism of scattering and its role in coral evolution and dissolution of algal symbioses during “bleaching” events are largely unknown. Here we show that differences in skeletal fractal architecture at nano/micro-lengthscales within 96 coral taxa result in an 8-fold variation in light-scattering and considerably alter the algal light environment. We identified a continuum of properties that fall between two extremes: (1) corals with low skeletal fractality that are efficient at transporting and redistributing light throughout the colony with low scatter but are at higher risk of bleaching and (2) corals with high skeletal fractality that are inefficient at transporting and redistributing light with high scatter and are at lower risk of bleaching. While levels of excess light derived from the coral skeleton is similar in both groups, the low-scatter corals have a higher rate of light-amplification increase when symbiont concentration is reduced during bleaching, thus creating a positive feedback-loop between symbiont concentration and light-amplification that exposes the remaining symbionts to increasingly higher light intensities. By placing our findings in an evolutionary framework, in conjunction with a novel empirical index of coral bleaching susceptibility, we find significant correlations between bleaching susceptibility and light-scattering despite rich homoplasy in both characters; suggesting that the cost of enhancing light-amplification to the algae is revealed in decreased resilience of the partnership to stress.

Concepts: Algae, Photosynthesis, Evolution, Symbiosis, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Endosymbiont


Staphylococcus aureus is a major cause of healthcare associated mortality, but like many important bacterial pathogens, it is a common constituent of the normal human body flora. Around a third of healthy adults are carriers. Recent evidence suggests that evolution of S. aureus during nasal carriage may be associated with progression to invasive disease. However, a more detailed understanding of within-host evolution under natural conditions is required to appreciate the evolutionary and mechanistic reasons why commensal bacteria such as S. aureus cause disease. Therefore we examined in detail the evolutionary dynamics of normal, asymptomatic carriage. Sequencing a total of 131 genomes across 13 singly colonized hosts using the Illumina platform, we investigated diversity, selection, population dynamics and transmission during the short-term evolution of S. aureus.

Concepts: Natural selection, Bacteria, Evolution, Staphylococcus aureus, Ecology, Antibiotic resistance, Staphylococcus, Symbiosis


The study of polymorphisms is particularly informative for enhancing our understanding of phenotypic and genetic diversity. The persistence of polymorphism in a population is generally explained by balancing selection. Color polymorphisms that are often found in many insects and arthropods are prime examples of the maintenance of polymorphisms via balancing selection. In some aphids, color morphs are maintained through frequency-dependent predation by two predatory insects. However, the presence of color polymorphism in ant-attended aphids cannot be explained by traditional balancing selection because these aphids are free from predation. We examined the selective advantages of the existence of two color (red and green) morphs in the ant-attended aphid, Macrosiphoniella yomogicola, in fields. We measured the degree of ant attendance on aphid colonies with different proportions of color morphs. The results show that the ants strongly favor aphid colonies with intermediate proportions of the two color morphs. The relationship between the degree of ant attendance and the proportion of color morphs in the field is convex when aphid colony size and ant colony size are controlled. This function has a peak of approximately 65% of green morphs in a colony. This system represents the first case of a balancing polymorphism that is not maintained by opposing factors but by a symbiotic relationship.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Insect, Symbiosis, Ant, Balancing selection, Aphid, Mutualism


Cyanobacteria-plant symbioses play an important role in many ecosystems due to the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen (N) by the cyanobacterial symbiont. The ubiquitous feather moss Pleurozium schreberi (Brid.) Mitt. is colonized by cyanobacteria in boreal systems with low N deposition. Here, cyanobacteria fix substantial amounts of N2 and represent a potential N source. The feather moss appears to be resistant to decomposition, which could be partly a result of toxins produced by cyanobacteria. To assess how cyanobacteria modulated the toxicity of moss, we measured inhibition of bacterial growth. Moss with varying numbers of cyanobacteria was added to soil bacteria to test the inhibition of their growth using the thymidine incorporation technique. Moss could universally inhibit bacterial growth, but moss toxicity did not increase with N2 fixation rates (numbers of cyanobacteria). Instead, we see evidence for a negative relationship between moss toxicity to bacteria and N2 fixation, which could be related to the ecological mechanisms that govern the cyanobacteria - moss relationship. We conclude that cyanobacteria associated with moss do not contribute to the resistance to decomposition of moss, and from our results emerges the question as to what type of relationship the moss and cyanobacteria share.

Concepts: Cyanobacteria, Oxygen, Bacteria, Evolution, Plant, Symbiosis, Nitrogen, Mosses