Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Host sanctions

How do you keep your mutualists 'honest' and prevent them from cheating? If you are a plant and provide Rhizobium bacteria with a nice home and everything it needs what will you do if the Rhizobium turns out to be a deadbeat and doesn't fix enough Nitrogen?  The plant starts turning off the amenities starting with the oxygen...

Explaining mutualistic cooperation between species remains one of the greatest problems for evolutionary biology. Why do symbionts provide costly services to a host, indirectly benefiting
competitors sharing the same individual host? Host monitoring of symbiont performance and the imposition of sanctions on ‘cheats’ could stabilize mutualism. Here we show that soybeans
penalize rhizobia that fail to fix N2 inside their root nodules. We prevented a normally mutualistic rhizobium strain from cooperating (fixing N2) by replacing air with an N2-free atmosphere. A series of experiments at three spatial scales (whole plants, half root systems and individual nodules) demonstrated that forcing non-cooperation (analogous to cheating) decreased the reproductive success of rhizobia by about 50%. Non-invasive monitoring implicated decreased O2 supply as a possible mechanism
for sanctions against cheating rhizobia. More generally, such sanctions by one or both partners may be important in stabilizing a wide range of mutualistic symbioses.

From Host sanctions and the legume–rhizobium mutualism

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