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Bacterial symbionts as mediators of ecologically important traits of insect hosts

Ecological entomology 2011 v.36 no.5 pp. 533-543
digestion, endosymbionts, fecundity, foods, genetic variation, genome, genotype, heat tolerance, hosts, in vivo studies, insects, niches, nutrients, parasites, phenotype, phenotypic variation, plant physiology
1. Bacterial symbionts play a prominent role in insect nutritional ecology by aiding in digestion of food or providing nutrients that are limited or lacking in the diet. Thereby, endosymbionts open niches to their insect host that would otherwise be unavailable. 2. Currently, several other ecologically relevant traits mediated by endosymbionts are being investigated, including enhanced parasite resistance, enhanced heat tolerance, and influences on insect–plant interactions such as manipulation of plant physiology to the benefit of the insect. 3. Traits mediated by endosymbionts are often identified by correlative studies where traits are found to be altered in the presence of a particular symbiont. Recent developments in genomic tools offer the opportunity for studying the impact of bacteria–insect symbioses under natural conditions in a population and community ecology context. In vivo experiments specifically testing putative functions of endosymbionts in parallel to population‐level studies on the prevalence of endosymbionts allow disentangling host versus symbiont contribution to phenotypic variability observed in individuals. Effects of symbionts on host phenotype are often large and relevant to host fitness, e.g. by significantly enhancing survival or fecundity in a context‐dependent manner. 4. Predominantly vertically transmitted endosymbionts contribute to the heritable genetic variation present in a host species. Phenotypic variation on which selection can act may be due to differences either among host genomes, symbiont genomes, or genotype × genotype interactions. Therefore the holobiont, i.e. the host including all symbionts, should be regarded as the unit of selection as the association between host and symbionts may affect the fitness of the holobiont depending on the environment.