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Can bacteria be real estate agents?

Starting counter-clockwise in the upper left-hand corner, photos show pea aphids and host plants, vetch and white clover. In the micrograph in the upper right-hand corner, green shows the essential symbiont Buchnera; whereas red shows the pea aphid U-type symbiont (PAUS) that is involved in the host plant specialization. Image courtesy of Tsutomu Tsuchida.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Scientists found a strain of bacteria that live inside the bodies of tiny sap-sucking insects and act, in a way, like real estate agents.

While bacteria don't sell plants to aphids, new research shows that these bacteria help determine which plants make the best place for aphids to breed and raise their young.

Japanese pea aphids are about the size of sesame seeds, with two antennae by their heads, long legs, and straws for sucking plant sap. Aphids reproduce quickly, and their offspring pile up on the stems and undersides of young leaves the way sesame seeds pile up on top of a bagel.

Pea aphids and host plant. Image courtesy of Tsutomu Tsuchida.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

The new study shows that Japanese pea aphids reproduce much faster on white clover plants when they have a specific kind of bacteria living inside their bodies. Scientists call these bacteria "PAUS."

Tsutomu Tsuchida and co-authors from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Sciences and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan also showed that the presence or absence of these bacteria does not speed or slow Japanese pea aphid reproduction when they are living on plants in the pea family called "vetch."

Scientists are not sure how or why PAUS bacteria help aphids reproduce faster on white clover plants, or why aphids reproduce just the same on vetch plants with or without the bacteria. They suggest that bacteria living inside aphids, together with the genetic instructions aphids are born with, help determine which plants make the best aphid homes.

These findings appear in the 26 March issue of the journal Science.


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