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Pu, Yuanshu; Naikatini, Alivereti; Perez-Escobar, Oscar Alejandro; Silber, Martina; Renner, Susanne S. and Chomicki, Guillaume (2021): Genome-wide transcriptome signatures of ant-farmed Squamellaria epiphytes reveal key functions in a unique symbiosis. In: Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 11, No. 22: pp. 15882-15895

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Farming of fungi by ants, termites, or beetles has led to ecologically successful societies fueled by industrial-scale food production. Another type of obligate insect agriculture in Fiji involves the symbiosis between the ant Philidris nagasau and epiphytes in the genus Squamellaria (Rubiaceae) that the ants fertilize, defend, harvest, and depend on for nesting. All farmed Squamellaria form tubers (domatia) with preformed entrance holes and complex cavity networks occupied by P. nagasau. The inner surface of the domatia consists of smooth-surfaced walls where the ants nest and rear their brood, and warty-surfaced walls where they fertilize their crop by defecation. Here, we use RNA sequencing to identify gene expression patterns associated with the smooth versus warty wall types. Since wall differentiation occurred in the most recent common ancestor of all farmed species of Squamellaria, our study also identifies genetic pathways co-opted following the emergence of agriculture. Warty-surfaced walls show many upregulated genes linked to auxin transport, root development, and nitrogen transport consistent with their root-like function;their defense-related genes are also upregulated, probably to protect these permeable areas from pathogen entry. In smooth-surfaced walls, genes functioning in suberin and wax biosynthesis are upregulated, contributing to the formation of an impermeable ant-nesting area in the domatium. This study throws light on a number of functional characteristics of plant farming by ants and illustrates the power of genomic studies of symbiosis.

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