, Volume 94, Issue 4, pp 517-526
Date: 30 Jul 2008

Yeasts and filamentous fungi carried by the gynes of leaf-cutting ants

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Abstract

Insect-associated microbes exhibit a wide range of interactions with their hosts. One example of such interactions is the insect-driven dispersal of microorganisms, which plays an essential role in the ecology of several microbes. To study dispersal of microorganisms by leaf-cutting ants (Formicidae: Attini), we applied culture-dependent methods to identify the filamentous fungi and yeasts found in two different body parts of leaf-cutting ant gynes: the exoskeleton and the infrabuccal pocket. The gynes use the latter structure to store a pellet of the ants’ symbiotic fungus during nest founding. Many filamentous fungi (n = 142) and yeasts (n = 19) were isolated from the gynes’ exoskeleton. In contrast, only seven filamentous fungi and three yeasts isolates were recovered from the infrabuccal pellets, suggesting an efficient mechanism utilized by the gynes to prevent contamination of the symbiotic fungus inoculum. The genus Cladosporium prevailed (78%) among filamentous fungi whereas Aureobasidium, Candida and Cryptococcus prevailed among yeasts associated with gynes. Interestingly, Escovopsis, a specialized fungal pathogen of the leaf-cutting ant-fungus symbiosis, was not isolated from the body parts or from infrabuccal pellets of any gynes sampled. Our results suggest that gynes of the leaf-cutter ants Atta laevigata and A. capiguara do not vertically transmit any particular species of yeasts or filamentous fungi during the foundation of a new nest. Instead, fungi found in association with gynes have a cosmopolitan distribution, suggesting they are probably acquired from the environment and passively dispersed during nest foundation. The possible role of these fungi for the attine ant–microbial symbiosis is discussed.