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Open Access Research article

Multiple endosymbionts in populations of the ant Formica cinerea

Anu Sirviö1* and Pekka Pamilo12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, P.O. Box 3000, University of Oulu 90014, Oulu, Finland

2 Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki 00014, P.O. Box 65, Helsinki, Finland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:335  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-335

Published: 1 November 2010

Abstract

Background

Many insects, including ants, are infected by maternally inherited Wolbachia endosymbiotic bacteria though other secondary endosymbionts have not been reported in ants. It has been suggested that the ability of Wolbachia to invade and remain in an ant population depends on the number of coexisting queens in a colony. We study the genetic and social structure of populations in the ant Formica cinerea which is known to have populations with either monogynous or polygynous colonies. We screen populations for several endosymbiotic bacteria to evaluate the presence of different endosymbionts, possible association between their prevalence and the social structure, and the association between endosymbiont prevalence and genetic differentiation of ant populations.

Results

We found three endosymbiotic bacteria; 19% of the nests were infected by Wolbachia, 3.8% by Cardinium and 33% by Serratia. There was significant variation among the populations regarding the proportion of nests infected by Serratia, Wolbachia and the pooled set of all the endosymbionts. Some individuals and colonies carried two of the bacteria, the frequency of double infections agreeing with the random expectation. The proportion of infected ants (individuals or colonies) did not correlate significantly with the population level relatedness values. The difference in the prevalence of Wolbachia between population pairs correlated significantly with the genetic distance (microsatellites) of the populations.

Conclusions

The discovery of several endosymbionts and co-infections by Wolbachia and Cardinium demonstrate the importance of screening several endosymbionts when evaluating their possible effects on social life and queen-worker conflicts over sex allocation. The low prevalence of Wolbachia in F. cinerea departs from the pattern observed in many other Formica ants in which all workers have been infected. It is likely that the strain of Wolbachia in F. cinerea differs from those in other Formica species. The correlation between the difference in Wolbachia prevalence and the pair-wise genetic distance of populations suggests that spreading of the bacteria is restricted by the isolation of the host populations.