Primitive agriculture in a social amoeba

Primitive agriculture in a social amoeba

Debra A. Brock, Tracy E. Douglas, David C. Queller & Joan E. Strassmann

Nature 469, 393–396 (20 January 2011) doi:10.1038/nature09668


Agriculture has been a large part of the ecological success of humans. A handful of animals, notably the fungus-growing ants, termites and ambrosia beetles, have advanced agriculture that involves dispersal and seeding of food propagules, cultivation of the crop and sustainable harvesting. More primitive examples, which could be called husbandry because they involve fewer adaptations, include marine snails farming intertidal fungi and damselfish farming algae. Recent work has shown that microorganisms are surprisingly like animals in having sophisticated behaviours such as cooperation, communication and recognition, as well as many kinds of symbiosis. Here we show that the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum has a primitive farming symbiosis that includes dispersal and prudent harvesting of the crop. About one-third of wild-collected clones engage in husbandry of bacteria. Instead of consuming all bacteria in their patch, they stop feeding early and incorporate bacteria into their fruiting bodies. They then carry bacteria during spore dispersal and can seed a new food crop, which is a major advantage if edible bacteria are lacking at the new site. However, if they arrive at sites already containing appropriate bacteria, the costs of early feeding cessation are not compensated for, which may account for the dichotomous nature of this farming symbiosis. The striking convergent evolution between bacterial husbandry in social amoebas and fungus farming in social insects makes sense because multigenerational benefits of farming go to already established kin groups.

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