Evidence for cascades of perturbation and adaptation in the metabolic genes of higher termite gut symbionts

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Journal Article
Termites and their gut microbes engage in fascinating dietary mutualisms. Less is known about how these complex symbioses have evolved after first emerging in an insect ancestor over 120 million years ago. Here we examined a bacterial gene, formate dehydrogenase (fdhF), that is key to the mutualism in 8 species of "higher" termite (members of the Termitidae, the youngest and most biomass-abundant and species-rich termite family). Patterns of fdhF diversity in the gut communities of higher termites contrasted strongly with patterns in less-derived (more-primitive) insect relatives (wood-feeding "lower" termites and roaches). We observed phylogenetic evidence for (i) the sweeping loss of several clades of fdhF that may reflect extinctions of symbiotic protozoa and, importantly, bacteria dependent on them in the last common ancestor of all higher termites and (ii) a radiation of genes from the (possibly) single allele that survived. Sweeping gene loss also resulted in (iii) the elimination of an entire clade of genes encoding selenium (Se)-independent enzymes from higher termite gut communities, perhaps reflecting behavioral or morphological innovations in higher termites that relaxed preexisting environmental limitations of Se, a dietary trace element. Curiously, several higher termite gut communities may have subsequently reencountered Se limitation, reinventing genes for Se-independent proteins via convergent evolution. Lastly, the presence of a novel fdhF lineage within litterfeeding and subterranean higher (but not other) termites may indicate recent gene "invasion" events. These results imply that cascades of perturbation and adaptation by distinct evolutionary mechanisms have impacted the evolution of complex microbial communities in a highly successful lineage of insects. IMPORTANCE Since patterns of relatedness between termite hosts are broadly mirrored by the relatedness of their symbiotic gut microbiota, coevolution between hosts and gut symbionts is rightly considered an important force that has shaped dietary mutualism since its inception over 120 million years ago. Apart from that concerning lateral gene or symbiont transfer between termite gut communities (for which no evidence yet exists), there has been little discussion of alternative mechanisms impacting the evolution of mutualism. Here we provide strong gene-based evidence for past environmental perturbations creating significant upheavals that continue to reverberate throughout the gut communities of species comprising a single termite lineage. We suggest that symbiont extinction events, sweeping gene losses, evolutionary radiations, relaxation and reemergence of key nutritional pressures, convergent evolution of similar traits, and recent gene invasions have all shaped gene composition in the symbiotic gut microbial communities of higher termites, currently the most dominant and successful termite family on Earth. © 2012 Zhang and Leadbetter.