When a Mutualism Becomes Obligate

Mutualism. The word invokes this warm and fuzzy "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" feeling. It is easy to grasp how a mutualism would develop and be maintained. But, in any system, there are bound to be cheaters. Cheaters reduce the fitness of one of the partners so to avoid such things, some species up the ante by resorting to some interestingly "sinister" methods.

Acacias and ants have quite the relationship. Acacias protect themselves by offering ants hollow spines and branches where their colonies can live. They even sweeten the deal via extrafloral nectaries. These are glands on the stems that secrete nectar that the ants eat. In some ant species, this is their only source of food. Needless to say, the ants become highly protective of their acacia trees. They readily attack herbivores and even go as far as to prune away vegetation that may interfere with their host. This seems like a pretty straight forward mutualistic relationship, right?

Ah, but it goes deeper. To make sure that the ants will solely rely on the acacia and are thus completely tied up in the well being of their host, the acacia alters the ants phenotype at birth. Normally these ants have no issues digesting sucrose. Researchers found that the nectar in the extrafloral nectaries contains a protein called "chitinase." Chitinase inhibits the ability of the ants to digest sucrose. When ant eggs hatch into larvae, their first meal is nectar from the extra floral nectaries. Once the larvae ingest this protein they are no longer able to feed on anything other than their hosts nectar. Thus their very survival is completely tied to the Acacia.

I am positive that more examples of such obligate mutualisms abound in nature. We only have to ask the right questions to discover them. It is also interesting considering what we are finding out about our own behavior and how it relates to the microbiome living on and within us. What about human behavior could be described in the context of a relationship similar to ants and acacias?

Photo Credit: Tony Rodd

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