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A bug's life: Exceptional genomic stability yet rapid protein evolution in a carpenter ant mutualist

The recent surge in the number of microbial genome sequences available to the scientific community is allowing researchers to address interesting ecological questions and to observe how various genomic, evolutionary, and ecological forces interact to define an organism's role in the environment. Today, Dr. Jennifer Wernegreen's group from the Marine Biological Laboratory presents new data that support a fascinating model for genome evolution in bacteria that live inside insects.

The scientists show that symbiotic bacteria have undergone exceptionally fast rates of protein evolution despite having precisely maintained their genomic architecture over long periods of evolutionary time. In their report, published today in the journal Genome Research, the scientists discuss this model in the ecological context of host-symbiont interplay.

"Symbiosis is an important driver of evolutionary novelty and ecological diversity," explains Wernegreen. "Microbial symbionts in particular have been major evolutionary catalysts throughout the 4 billion years of life on earth and have largely shaped the evolution of complex organisms."

Symbiotic bacteria live in root nodules of leguminous plants, in gutless marine worms, in echinoderms such as starfishes and sea urchins, and in specialized cells of insects such as aphids and tsetse flies. Many symbiotic relationships are obligate; neither the bacterium nor its host can live without the other.

Wernegreen's group focused on the bacterium Blochmannia, which has lived inside Camponotus and related ant genera for the past 30 million years or more. The bacteria may utilize the ant host for basic metabolic functions, including the initiation of DNA replication. In turn, the microbes may synthesize certain nutrients that enable the ants to inhabit unique ecological niches and thrive on nutritionally unbalanced food sources. This mutualistic association is thought to contribute to the astounding ecological success
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Source:Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


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