Mutualistic Symbioses

Abstract

Mutualistic symbioses are defined as intimate inter‐species interactions beneficial to all species partners. In reality, however, mutualistic symbioses are more intricate, complex, diverse and variable than the formal definition suggests; understanding this complexity is essential to understanding mutualism dynamics. Widely distributed both geographically and taxonomically, mutualistic symbioses play a significant role in the biology of organisms. Iconic examples of mutualisms such as lichens, reef‐building corals with algal symbionts, and mycorrhizal fungi with terrestrial plants, highlight the prevalence of many symbiotic mutualisms in resource‐limited conditions. The several important examples of hereditary microbial symbiosis in insects call attention to the importance of hereditarily transmitted symbioses as well. But there are also mutualisms that do not fit the ecological paradigm of partnerships forged by nutrient scarcity, and evolutionarily persistent, horizontally‐transmitted mutualisms which challenge the notion that hereditary symbiosis is the only stable form of mutualistic symbiosis. In the face of ubiquitous immune defences among organisms, the persistence and ubiquity of mutualistic symbiosis seems a physiologically improbable phenomenon. But recent research suggests a possible resolution to this paradox, in revealing the involvement of immune mechanisms in selection, tolerance and maintenance of beneficial foreign microbes, as well as recognition and elimination of pathogens.

Key Concepts:

  • Given the ubiquity and effectiveness of immune defences among plants and animals, the existence of chronic, beneficial infections seems a physiologically improbable situation.

  • Despite its improbability, mutualistic symbiosis is widespread in the biosphere, playing key roles in the evolution and ecology of land plants, tropical and deep‐sea marine ecosystems, the biology of herbivorous animals, and more.

  • Mutualistic symbioses are diverse, embracing a physiologically, taxonomically, and ecologically diverse array of interactions.

  • Mutualistic symbioses can incorporate antagonistic as well as mutualistic elements; many can also vary in their biological effects, depending on environmental conditions.

  • While the metabolic foundation of many mutualistic host‐symbiont interactions lies in symbiotic‐enhanced nutrient exchanges in nutrient‐limited conditions, benefits of symbiotic mutualisms can also include nonnutritional factors such as bioluminescence, drought resistance and enhanced defences against predators and pathogens.

  • Hereditarily‐transmitted symbioses are often considered the 'ultimate' mutualisms because of the extreme interdependence and striking coevolution of hosts and endosymbionts in such interactions.

  • However, nonhereditary (horizontally transmitted) mutualisms also can be strongly interdependent, evolutionarily persistent associations, with major impact on the ecology and evolution of plants and animals.

Keywords: symbiosis; mutualism; parasite; lichens; legumes; symbiont; host; endosymbiont; bioluminescence; mycorrhizae; reef‐building corals; endophytes

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Saffo, Mary Beth(Jul 2014) Mutualistic Symbioses. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003281.pub2]