We investigate the nature and duration of incompatibility between certain combinations of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants and symbiotic fungi, taken from sympatric colonies of the same or a related species. Ant-fungus incompatibility appeared to be largely independent of the ant species involved, but could be explained partly by genetic differences among the fungus cultivars. Following current theoretical considerations, we develop a hypothesis, originally proposed by S. A. Frank, that the observed incompatibilities are ultimately due to competitive interactions between genetically different fungal lineages, and we predict that the ants should have evolved mechanisms to prevent such competition between cultivars within a single garden. This requires that the ants are able to recognize unfamiliar fungi, and we show that this is indeed the case. Amplified fragment length polymorphism genotyping further shows that the two sympatric Acromyrmex species share each other's major lineages of cultivar, confirming that horizontal transfer does occasionally take place. We argue and provide some evidence that chemical substances produced by the fungus garden may mediate recognition of alien fungi by the ants. We show that incompatibility between ants and transplanted, genetically different cultivars is indeed due to active killing of the novel cultivar by the ants. This incompatibility disappears when ants are force-fed the novel cultivar for about a week, a result that is consistent with our hypothesis of recognition induced by the resident fungus and eventual replacement of incompatibility compounds during force-feeding.
Corresponding Editor: K. Ross