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Open Access Research article

Experimental evolution of defense against a competitive mold confers reduced sensitivity to fungal toxins but no increased resistance in Drosophila larvae

Monika Trienens12 and Marko Rohlfs12*

Author Affiliations

1 Zoological Institute, Department of Evolutionary Ecology and Genetics, Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, Am BotanischenGarten 1-9, D-24098 Kiel, Germany

2 J.F Blumenbach Institute of Zoology and Anthropology, Animal Ecology, Georg-August-University of Göttingen, BerlinerStraße 28, D-37073 Göttingen, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:206  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-206

Published: 14 July 2011

Abstract

Background

Fungal secondary metabolites have been suggested to function as chemical defenses against insect antagonists, i.e. predators and competitors. Because insects and fungi often compete for dead organic material, insects may achieve protection against fungi by reducing sensitivity to fungal chemicals. This, in turn, may lead to increased resistance allowing insects better to suppress the spread of antagonistic but non-pathogenic microbes in their habitat. However, it remains controversial whether fungal toxins serve as a chemical shield that selects for insects that are less sensitive to toxins, and hence favors the evolution of insect resistance against microbial competitors.

Results

To examine the relationship between the ability to survive competition with toxic fungi, sensitivity to fungal toxins and resistance, we created fungal-selected (FS) replicated insect lines by exposing Drosophila melanogaster larvae to the fungal competitor Aspergillus nidulans over 26 insect generations. Compared to unselected control lines (UC), larvae from the FS lines had higher survival rates in the presence of A. nidulans indicating selection for increased protection against the fungal antagonist. In line with our expectation, FS lines were less susceptible to the A. nidulans mycotoxin Sterigmatocystin. Of particular interest is that evolved protection against A. nidulans and Sterigmatocytin was not correlated with increased insect survival in the presence of other fungi and mycotoxins. We found no evidence that FS lines were better at suppressing the expansion of fungal colonies but observed a trend towards a less detrimental effect of FS larvae on fungal growth.

Conclusion

Antagonistic but non-pathogenic fungi favor insect variants better protected against the fungal chemical arsenal. This highlights the often proposed but experimentally underexplored importance of secondary metabolites in driving animal-fungus interactions. Instead of enhanced resistance, insect larvae tend to have evolved increased tolerance of the fungal competitor. Future studies should examine whether sensitivity to allelopathic microbial metabolites drives a trade-off between resistance and tolerance in insect external defense.