"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

December 18, 2012

Metarhizium anisopliae

Today, we are featuring the insect-killing fungus Metarhizium anisopliae. I have previously written about a related species that specialises on orthopterans (grasshoppers, locusts) and all species in the Metarhizium genus are dyed-in-the-wool insect killers - some of them are used as biological insecticides. There is even ongoing research looking into ways of loading them with scorpion venom to fight mosquitoes which spread malaria

Metarhizium anisopilae growth from termite cadaver
Image from Fig. 1 of the paper
Metarhizium anisopliae infects a variety of insects and in the study we are featuring today, the host they were presented with were termites. But M. anisopliae is not alone in their taste for these blind social insects. Termites can also fall victim to Aspergillus nomius - a fungus that usually lives as a saprophyte (feeding off dead things), but can sometimes be a parasite when the opportunity arises. Aspergillus nomius can grow very well by feasting on dead termites, but it has one problem; being an opportunistic "sometime" parasite, it is not very good at actually killing termites - in fact it is very bad at it.

When healthy termites are exposed to the spores of A. nomius, they are unaffected. Termites only succumb when exposed to an extremely high dose of spores (five million spores per gram of sand in the enclosure the termites were housed in) and even then, after more than 10 days, only a tenth of the exposed population died. However, when exposed to M. anisopliae at a much lower dose (five hundred thousand spores per gram of sand), the termites died in droves, as expected. When the termite population was exposed to a fifth of the dose of M. anisophliae as had been tested with A. nomius (one million spores per gram of sand), the entire experimental population was wiped out after a week
Aspergillus nomius growth from termite cadaver
Image from Fig. 1 of the paper

In additional experiments where termites were exposed simultaneously to equal doses of spores from both fungi, they died at the same rate as those exposed to the equivalent dose of M. anisopilae sans A. nomius, showing that the M. anisopliae was the true killer and A. nomius did not contribute to bringing down the termites. But despite its role in mixed infection, the dedicated parasite M. anisopliae did not get to reap all the reward for its work in mixed company. Instead, it is out-competed by the opportunistic A. nomius, with termites cadaver killed by mixed infections sprouting more A. nomius.

This study illustrates the context-dependency nature of harm and competition. Ecological competition between parasites often involves trade-offs in a number of traits, and traits that allow a parasite to successfully overcome a host's defences do not necessarily makes it a good competitor when confronted with other parasites. In this particular case, the usually saprophytic A. nomius can't take down a healthy termites on its own, but given the chance through a true killer M. anisopliae, it'll step in and take over completely.

Chouvenc, T., Efstathion, C.A., Elliott, M.L., Su, NY. (2012) Resource competition between two fungal parasites in subterranean termites. Naturwissenschaften 99: 949-958

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