Low chitinase activity in Acacia myrmecophytes: a potential trade-off between biotic and chemical defences?
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We determined chitinase activity in leaves of four myrmecophytic and four non-myrmecophytic leguminous species at the plants' natural growing sites in Mexico. Myrmecophytic plants (or 'ant plants') have obligate mutualisms with ants protecting them against herbivores and pathogenic fungi. Plant chitinases can be considered a reliable measure of plant resistance to pathogenic fungi. The myrmecophytic Acacia species, which were colonised by mutualistic ants, exhibited at least six-fold lower levels of chitinase activity compared with the non-myrmecophytic Acacia farnesiana and three other non-myrmecophytes. Though belonging to different phylogenetic groups, the myrmecophytic Acacia species formed one distinct group in the data set, which was clearly separated from the non-myrmecophytic species. These findings allowed for comparison between two recent hypotheses that attempt to explain low chitinase activity in ant plants. Most probably, chitinases are reduced in myrmecophytic plant species because these are effectively defended indirectly due to their symbiosis with mutualistic ants.
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