Beetles get by with a little help

October 3rd, 2008 - 4:00 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 3 (IANS) 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) 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 revealed that adult beetles have a specialised 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, according to a University of Wisconsin release.

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 programme 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.”

These findings were published in Friday edition of Science.

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