IST Austria Thesis
Social insects are a common model to study disease dynamics in social animals. Even though pathogens should thrive in social insect colonies as the hosts engage in frequent social interactions, are closely related and live in a pathogen-rich environment, disease outbreaks are rare. This is because social insects have evolved mechanisms to keep pathogens at bay – and fight disease as a collective. Social insect colonies are often viewed as “superorganisms” with division of labor between reproductive “germ-like” queens and males and “somatic” workers, which together form an interdependent reproductive unit that parallels a multicellular body. Superorganisms possess a “social immune system” that comprises of collective disease defenses performed by the workers - summarized as “social immunity”. In social groups immunization (reduced susceptibility to a parasite upon secondary exposure to the same parasite) can e.g. be triggered by social interactions (“social immunization”). Social immunization can be caused by (i) asymptomatic low-level infections that are acquired during caregiving to a contagious individual that can give an immune boost, which can induce protection upon later encounter with the same pathogen (active immunization) or (ii) by transfer of immune effectors between individuals (passive immunization). In the second chapter, I built up on a study that I co-authored that found that low-level infections can not only be protective, but also be costly and make the host more susceptible to detrimental superinfections after contact to a very dissimilar pathogen. I here now tested different degrees of phylogenetically-distant fungal strains of M. brunneum and M. robertsii in L. neglectus and can describe the occurrence of cross-protection of social immunization if the first and second pathogen are from the same level. Interestingly, low-level infections only provided protection when the first strain was less virulent than the second strain and elicited higher immune gene expression. In the third and fourth chapters, I expanded on the role of social immunity in sexual selection, a so far unstudied field. I used the fungus Metarhizium robertsii and the ant Cardiocondyla obscurior as a model, as in this species mating occurs in the presence of workers and can be studied under laboratory conditions. Before males mate with virgin queens in the nest they engage in fierce combat over the access to their mating partners. First, I focused on male-male competition in the third chapter and found that fighting with a contagious male is costly as it can lead to contamination of the rival, but that workers can decrease the risk of disease contraction by performing sanitary care. In the fourth chapter, I studied the effect of fungal infection on survival and mating success of sexuals (freshly emerged queens and males) and found that worker-performed sanitary care can buffer the negative effect that a pathogenic contagion would have on sexuals by spore removal from the exposed individuals. When social immunity was prevented and queens could contract spores from their mating partner, very low dosages led to negative consequences: their lifespan was reduced and they produced fewer offspring with poor immunocompetence compared to healthy queens. Interestingly, cohabitation with a late-stage infected male where no spore transfer was possible had a positive effect on offspring immunity – male offspring of mothers that apparently perceived an infected partner in their vicinity reacted more sensitively to fungal challenge than male offspring without paternal pathogen history.
Metzler S. Pathogen-mediated sexual selection and immunization in ant colonies. 2022. doi:10.15479/AT:ISTA:10727
Metzler, S. (2022). Pathogen-mediated sexual selection and immunization in ant colonies. IST Austria. https://doi.org/10.15479/AT:ISTA:10727
Metzler, Sina. “Pathogen-Mediated Sexual Selection and Immunization in Ant Colonies.” IST Austria, 2022. https://doi.org/10.15479/AT:ISTA:10727.
S. Metzler, “Pathogen-mediated sexual selection and immunization in ant colonies,” IST Austria, 2022.
Metzler S. 2022. Pathogen-mediated sexual selection and immunization in ant colonies. IST Austria.
Metzler, Sina. Pathogen-Mediated Sexual Selection and Immunization in Ant Colonies. IST Austria, 2022, doi:10.15479/AT:ISTA:10727.
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