By their own devices: invasive Argentine ants have shifted diet without clear aid from symbiotic microbes

Yi Hu, David A. Holway, Piotr Łukasik, Linh Chau, Adam D. Kay, Edward G. LeBrun, Katie A. Miller, Jon G. Sanders, Andrew V. Suarez, Jacob A. Russell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The functions and compositions of symbiotic bacterial communities often correlate with host ecology. Yet cause–effect relationships and the order of symbiont vs. host change remain unclear in the face of ancient symbioses and conserved host ecology. Several groups of ants exemplify this challenge, as their low-nitrogen diets and specialized symbioses appear conserved and ancient. To address whether nitrogen-provisioning symbionts might be important in the early stages of ant trophic shifts, we studied bacteria from the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile – an invasive species that has transitioned towards greater consumption of sugar-rich, nitrogen-poor foods in parts of its introduced range. Bacteria were present at low densities in most L. humile workers, and among those yielding quality 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing data, we found just three symbionts to be common and dominant. Two, a Lactobacillus and an Acetobacteraceae species, were shared between native and introduced populations. The other, a Rickettsia, was found only in two introduced supercolonies. Across an eight-year period of trophic reduction in one introduced population, we found no change in symbionts, arguing against a relationship between natural dietary change and microbiome composition. Overall, our findings thus argue against major changes in symbiotic bacteria in association with the invasion and trophic shift of L. humile. In addition, genome content from close relatives of the identified symbionts suggests that just one can synthesize most essential amino acids; this bacterium was only modestly abundant in introduced populations, providing little support for a major role of nitrogen-provisioning symbioses in Argentine ant's dietary shift.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1608-1630
Number of pages23
JournalMolecular ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • insects
  • microbial biology
  • next-generation sequencing
  • symbiosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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