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Sensitivity of ant (Cephalotes) colonies and individuals to antibiotics implies feeding symbiosis with gut microorganisms

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Ants in the tribe Cephalotini are exceptional in that they maintain microorganisms in their digestive tract. To understand what these microorganisms mean to the ants, we observed the feeding habits of Cephalotes pusillus and Cephalotes atratus, finding that in nature they feed on extrafloral nectars, homopteran secretions, and bird droppings. Feeding the antibiotic kanamycin to colonies of C. pusillus in the laboratory kills them. Ants desiccate or starve rather than feed on liquids to which the antibiotics gentamycin and netilmycin have been added, but feed and survive on liquids containing nystatin, penicillin, and ampicillin. We identified over 10 microorganisms from the intestine of C. pusillus with different antibiotic-resistance patterns. The bacteria are from the genera Corynebacterium, Brevibacterium, Sphingobacterium, Ochrobactrum, Myroides, Brevundimonas, Alcaligenes, Stenotrophomonas, Moraxella, and Pseudomonas. We hypothesize that the microorganisms provide nutrients to the ants by synthesizing amino acids from carbohydrates and nitrates. We do not know whether the ants collect the bacteria from the environment, but they transmit them to their young. They culture them in their digestive tract, eventually feeding on them.

Les fourmis de la tribu des Cephalotini sont remarquables en ce qu'elles gardent des microorganismes vivants dans leur tube digestif. Pour comprendre le rôle que jouent ces microorganismes chez les fourmis, nous avons observé les habitudes alimentaires de Cephalotes pusillus et de Cephalotes atratus et avons constaté qu'en nature, ces fourmis se nourrissent de nectars extrafloraux, de sécrétions d'homoptères et de fèces d'oiseaux. L'addition d'un antibiotique, la kanamicine, à des colonies de C. pusillus en laboratoire tue les fourmis. Les fourmis se dessèchent ou meurent de faim plutôt que d'ingérer des liquides additionnés des antibiotiques gentamicine ou nétromicine, mais il se nourrissent de liquides additionnés des antibiotiques nistatin, pénicilline et ampicilline. Nous avons identifié, dans le tube digestif de C. pusillus, plus de 10 microorganismes qui montrent des patterns de résistance différents selon l'antibiotique. Les bactéries appartiennent aux genres Corynebacterium, Brevibacterium, Sphingobacterium, Ochrobactrum, Myroides, Brevundimonas, Alcaligenes, Stenotrophomonas, Moraxella et Pseudomonas. Nous croyons que les microorganismes fournissent des matières nutritives aux fourmis en synthétisant des acides aminés à partir des hydrates de carbone et des nitrates. Nous ne savons pas si les fourmis récoltent les bactéries dans leur milieu, mais elles les transmettent à leur progéniture. Elles les élèvent dans leur tube digestif et finissent par s'en nourrir.[Traduit par la Rédaction]

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2001-06-01

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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