Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Faithful allies since the Cretaceous


Symbiosis between beewolves and their protective bacteria originated millions of years ago. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology and the University of Regensburg, in collaboration with researchers in the USA, now discovered that certain wasps tightly control mother-to-offspring transmission of their bacterial symbionts. This stabilizes the symbiotic alliance and contributed to its persistence over the past 68-110 million years.

Like humans, many animals depend on beneficial microbes for survival. Although such symbioses can persist for millions of years, the factors maintaining their long-term stability remain, in most cases, unknown.

A male beewolf (Philanthus pulcherrimus) on a perch in its territory. Three genera of these digger wasps cultivate antibiotic-producing Streptomyces bacteria.

Martin Kaltenpoth / Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology

Symbiotic Streptomyces bacteria from the antennae of a female beewolf (Philanthus triangulum) (in false colors).

Martin Kaltenpoth / Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology and the University of Regensburg, in collaboration with researchers in the USA, now discovered that certain wasps tightly control mother-to-offspring transmission of their bacterial symbionts. This stabilizes the symbiotic alliance and contributed to its persistence over the past 68-110 million years. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, April 2014, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1400457111)

Symbiotic associations are ubiquitous in nature and play a pivotal role for the ecology and evolution of most organisms on earth. This is exemplified by mykorrhizal fungi that are important nutritional partners for up to 90% of all land plants. Many symbioses have persisted for hundreds of millions of years, with a certain host species consistently associating with a specific symbiont. But how do these alliances persist?

After all, many symbionts spend part of their life cycle outside of the host’s body. In order to prevent the acquisition of ever-present environmental microbes, the host must discriminate between friends and foes.

A particularly fascinating defensive alliance occurs in the European beewolf (Philanthus triangulum), a digger wasp that hunts honeybees and provisions them for its offspring in underground nests. Previous research has shown that bacterial symbionts of the genus Streptomyces live in the wasp’s antennae and on the larval cocoons. The bacteria produce a cocktail of nine different antibiotics that fend off detrimental fungi and bacteria from infecting the developing larva in the cocoon.

This strategy to avoid infections is comparable to the combination prophylaxis used in human medicine (see press release of February 23, 2010 ("Beewolves Protect their Offspring With Antibiotics - Digger wasp larvae use bacteria against infections":

The scientists now reconstructed the phylogenies of different beewolf species and their symbionts. An analysis of the beewolf phylogeny revealed that the symbiosis with Streptomyces first originated in the late Cretaceous, between 68 and 110 million years ago. At present, about 170 species of wasps live in symbiosis with the protective bacteria. The comparison of host and symbionts phylogenies yielded another surprising finding:

The symbionts of all beewolf species are very closely related, but their phylogeny does not exactly reflect that of their hosts, although this would be expected in case of perfect transmission of symbionts from mother to its progeny. “This pattern indicates that while beewolves occasionally replace their bacteria, they always do so with the symbiont of another beewolf species” explains Martin Kaltenpoth. “Although free-living relatives of the symbiotic bacteria are very common in beewolf habitats, they are apparently not able to stably infect beewolves and replace the native symbionts.”

To elucidate how beewolves maintain the association with their specific symbionts, the scientists generated symbiont-free beewolves and then infected them either with their native symbionts or with a related bacterium from the environment. Although both microbes grew in the wasps' antennae, only the native symbiont was successfully transferred to the offspring. “Preventing transmission of other – possibly detrimental – microbes might be important to avoid infection of the cocoon.

At the same time, beewolves ensure that their offspring inherit the true defensive symbiont”, concludes Erhard Strohm. The beewolves' strategy to transmit the appropriate symbionts provides a unique glimpse into how a symbiosis can remain stable over millions of years, and it helps explain the abundance and persistence of symbiotic associations in insects. In the future, the scientists hope to uncover the molecular basis of how beewolves manage to selectively prevent transmission of non-native bacteria. [MK]

Original Publication:
Kaltenpoth, M., Roeser-Mueller, K., Koehler, S., Peterson, A., Nechitaylo, T., Stubblefield, J.W., Herzner, G., Seger, J. & Strohm, E. (2014). Partner choice and fidelity stabilize coevolution in a Cretaceous-age defensive symbiosis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. April 2014, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1400457111

Further Information:
Dr. Martin Kaltenpoth, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knöll-Str. 8, 07745 Jena, Germany, +49 3641 57-1800,

Contact and Picture Requests:
Angela Overmeyer M.A., Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knöll-Str. 8, 07745 Jena, +49 3641 57-2110,

Download of high-resolution images via

Weitere Informationen:

Angela Overmeyer | Max-Planck-Institut

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Sweetening neurotransmitter receptors and other neuronal proteins
28.10.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Hirnforschung

nachricht A new look at thyroid diseases
28.10.2016 | Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>