Reciprocal genomic evolution in the ant-fungus agricultural symbiosis

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Abstract

The attine ant-fungus agricultural symbiosis evolved over tens of millions of years, producing complex societies with industrial-scale farming analogous to that of humans. Here we document reciprocal shifts in the genomes and transcriptomes of seven fungus-farming ant species and their fungal cultivars. We show that ant subsistence farming probably originated in the early Tertiary (55-60 MYA), followed by further transitions to the farming of fully domesticated cultivars and leaf-cutting, both arising earlier than previously estimated. Evolutionary modifications in the ants include unprecedented rates of genome-wide structural rearrangement, early loss of arginine biosynthesis and positive selection on chitinase pathways. Modifications of fungal cultivars include loss of a key ligninase domain, changes in chitin synthesis and a reduction in carbohydrate-degrading enzymes as the ants gradually transitioned to functional herbivory. In contrast to human farming, increasing dependence on a single cultivar lineage appears to have been essential to the origin of industrial-scale ant agriculture.

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Nygaard, S., Hu, H., Li, C., Schiøtt, M., Chen, Z., Yang, Z., … Boomsma, J. J. (2016). Reciprocal genomic evolution in the ant-fungus agricultural symbiosis. Nature Communications, 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12233

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