Competition-based screening secures the evolutionary stability of a defensive microbiome
Background: The cuticular microbiomes of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants pose a conundrum in microbiome biology because they are freely colonisable, and yet the prevalence of the vertically transmitted bacteria Pseudonocardia, which contributes to the control of Escovopsis fungus garden disease, is never compromised by the secondary acquisition of other bacterial strains. Game theory suggests that competition-based screening can allow the selective recruitment of antibiotic-producing bacteria from the environment, by providing abundant resources to foment interference competition between bacterial species and by using Pseudonocardia to bias the outcome of competition in favour of antibiotic producers.Results: Here, we use RNA-stable isotope probing (RNA-SIP) to confirm that Acromyrmex ants can maintain a range of microbial symbionts on their cuticle by supplying public resources. We then used RNA sequencing, bioassays, and competition experiments to show that vertically transmitted Pseudonocardia strains produce antibacterials that differentially reduce the growth rates of other microbes, ultimately biassing the bacterial competition to allow the selective establishment of secondary antibiotic-producing strains while excluding non-antibiotic-producing strains that would parasitise the symbiosis.Conclusions: Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that competition-based screening is a plausible mechanism for maintaining the integrity of the co-adapted mutualism between the leaf-cutting ant farming symbiosis and its defensive microbiome. Our results have broader implications for explaining the stability of other complex symbioses involving horizontal acquisition.