Made for Each Other: Ascomycete Yeasts and Insects

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Fungi and insects live together in the same habitats, and many species of both groups rely on each other for success. Insects, the most successful animals on Earth, cannot produce sterols, essential vitamins, and many enzymes; fungi, often yeast-like in growth form, make up for these deficits. Fungi, however, require constantly replenished substrates because they consume the previous ones, and insects, sometimes lured by volatile fungal compounds, carry fungi directly to a similar, but fresh, habitat. Yeasts associated with insects include Ascomycota (Saccharomycotina, Pezizomycotina) and a few Basidiomycota. Beetles, homopterans, and flies are important associates of fungi, and in turn the insects carry yeasts in pits, specialized external pouches, and modified gut pockets. Some yeasts undergo sexual reproduction within the insect gut, where the genetic diversity of the population is increased, while others, well suited to their stable environment, may never mate. The range of interactions extends from dispersal of yeasts on the surface of insects (e.g., cactus--yeast and ephemeral flower communities, ambrosia beetles, yeasts with holdfasts) to extremely specialized associations of organisms that can no longer exist independently, as in the case of yeast-like symbionts of planthoppers. In a few cases yeast-like fungus-insect associations threaten butterflies and other species with extinction. Technical advances improve discovery and identification of the fungi but also inform our understanding of the evolution of yeast-insect symbioses, although there is much more to learn.

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Microbiology spectrum

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