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Open Access Research

Dynamics of symbiont-mediated antibiotic production reveal efficient long-term protection for beewolf offspring

Sabrina Koehler1, Jan Doubský23 and Martin Kaltenpoth1*

Author Affiliations

1 Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Insect Symbiosis Research Group, Hans-Knoell-Str. 8, 07745, Jena, Germany

2 Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Mass Spectrometry/Proteomics Research Group, Jena, Germany

3 Present address: API Synthesis Department, Zentiva, Prague, Czech Republic

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Frontiers in Zoology 2013, 10:3  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-10-3

Published: 31 January 2013

Abstract

Background

Insects have evolved a wide range of mechanisms to defend themselves and their offspring against antagonists. One of these strategies involves the utilization of antimicrobial compounds provided by symbiotic bacteria to protect the host or its nutritional resources from pathogens and parasites. In the symbiosis of the solitary digger wasp, Philanthus triangulum (Hymenoptera, Crabronidae), the bacterial symbiont ‘Candidatus Streptomyces philanthi’ defends the developing larvae against pathogens by producing a mixture of at least nine antimicrobial substances on the cocoon surface. This antibiotic cocktail inhibits the growth of a broad range of detrimental fungi and bacteria, thereby significantly enhancing the offspring’s survival probability.

Results

Here we show that the production of antimicrobial compounds by the beewolf symbionts is confined to the first two weeks after cocoon spinning, leading to a high concentration of piericidins and streptochlorin on the cocoon surface. Expression profiling of housekeeping, sporulation, and antibiotic biosynthesis genes indicates that antibiotic production coincides with morphological differentiation that enables the symbionts to survive the nutrient-limited conditions on the beewolf cocoon. The antibiotic substances remain stable on the cocoon surface for the entire duration of the beewolf’s hibernation period, demonstrating that the compounds are resistant against environmental influences.

Conclusions

The antibiotic production by the beewolf symbionts serves as a reliable protection for the wasp offspring against pathogenic microorganisms during the long and unpredictable developmental phase in the subterranean brood cells. Thus, the beewolf-Streptomyces symbiosis provides one of the rare examples of antibiotics serving as an efficient defense in the natural environment and may aid in devising new strategies for the utilization of antibiotic combination therapies in human medicine against increasingly resistant bacterial and fungal pathogens.

Keywords:
Defensive symbiosis; Protective mutualism; Crabronidae; Antibiotic; Streptomyces; Hymenoptera; Streptochlorin synthesis