In many animal groups, mutualistic bacterial symbionts play a central role in host ecology, by provisioning rare nutrients and thus enabling specialization on restricted diets. Among such symbionts, genomic studies are most advanced for Buchnera, the obligate symbiont of aphids, which feed on phloem sap. The contents of the highly reduced Buchnera genomes have verified its role in aphid nutrition. Comparisons of Buchnera gene sets indicate ongoing, irreversible gene losses that are expected to affect aphid nutritional needs. Furthermore, almost all regulatory genes have been eliminated, raising the question of whether and how gene expression responds to environmental change. Microarray studies on genome-wide expression indicate that Buchnera has evolved some constitutive changes in gene expression: homologues of heat stress genes have elevated transcript levels in Buchnera (relative to other bacteria) even in the absence of stress. Additionally, the microarray results indicate that responses to heat stress and to amino acid availability are both few and modest. Observed responses are consistent with control by the few ancestral regulators retained in the genome. Initial studies on the role of host genes in mediating the symbiosis reveal distinctive expression patterns in host cells harbouring Buchnera. In the near future, a complete genome of pea aphid will accelerate progress in understanding the functional integration of aphid and Buchnera genomes. Although information for other insect symbioses is relatively limited, studies on symbionts of carpenter ants and tsetse flies indicate many similarities to Buchnera. © 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
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