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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 1:20 EDT

Insect Cooperation Common

October 6, 2008

Cooperation between insects and bacteria suggests inter-species collaboration may be common in many ecosystems

Humans living in communities often rely on friends to help get what they need and, according to researchers in the lab of Cameron Currie at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many microbes, plants and animals benefit from ‘friendly’ associations too.

The Currie team’s study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and published in the Oct. 3, 2008, issue of the journal Science, describes the complex relationship between a beetle, two types of tree fungus and a bacterium that aids in their struggle to survive and thrive.

Research in the Currie lab revealed that adult beetles have a specialized compartment in their bodies used to store two other organisms: a slow-growing beneficial fungus that serves as a food source and a bacterium that produces a unique, newly discovered antibiotic. Interestingly, the antibiotic inhibits the growth of a fast-growing competitor fungus but does not affect the slow-growing beneficial fungus.

Before laying eggs in tree bark, adult female beetles spread the slow-growing, beneficial fungus and bacteria around the area where they will deposit the eggs. The antibiotic from the bacteria prevents growth of the fast-growing competitor fungus but does not harm the slow-growing beneficial fungus, which continues to grow and provide a rich source of nutrition for the developing beetle larvae.

“There are perhaps 10 million species of insects on the planet,” says Currie, an evolutionary biologist. “So, if insects associate with bacteria like this more generally, then there’s potentially a huge number of new places to explore.”

NSF Program Officer Lita Proctor agrees, saying this research, which was co-authored by Jon Clardy of Harvard Medical School, has important implications for the ecosystems these species occupy.

“It may be that some organisms evolved symbioses (cooperative relationships) as a strategy to give them an advantage over others when competing for resources,” said Proctor. “These cooperative relationships may be much more common than we thought.”

In-depth study of these interactions could also lead to identification of new types of antibiotics or other chemicals which may have agricultural or medicinal uses. Thus in the future, we may get by with help from our little friends.

Image Caption: Adult southern pine beetle in flight. Credit: Erich Vallery, USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, Pineville, LA

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