Symbiont-Mediated Phenotypic Variation Without Co-Evolution in an Insect–Fungus Association

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Recent studies have shown that symbionts can be a source of adaptive phenotypic variation for their hosts. It is assumed that co-evolution between hosts and symbionts underlies these ecologically significant phenotypic traits. We tested this assumption in the ectosymbiotic fungal associate of the gall midge Asteromyia carbonifera. Phylogenetic analysis placed the fungal symbiont within a monophyletic clade formed by Botryosphaeria dothidea, a typically free-living (i.e. not associated with an insect host) plant pathogen. Symbiont isolates from four divergent midge lineages demonstrated none of the patterns common to heritable microbial symbioses, including parallel diversification with their hosts, substitution rate acceleration, or A+T nucleotide bias. Amplified fragment length polymorphism genotyping of the symbiont revealed that within-lineage genetic diversity was not clustered along host population lines. Culture-based experiments demonstrated that the symbiont-mediated variation in gall phenotype is not borne out in the absence of the midge. This study shows that symbionts can be important players in phenotypic variation for their hosts, even in the absence of a co-evolutionary association.