Inhabitants of arid ecosystems face severe nitrogen and water limitations. Inventive adaptations by organisms occupying such habitats are essential for survival. This study describes a tri-party symbiotic interaction between a plant (Salsola inermis), a beetle (Conorhynchus pistor), and a bacterium (Klebsiella pneumonia). The weevil survives by living within a mud structure affixed to the plant roots, thus benefiting from increased carbon and water, and refuge from predators and parasites. Active nitrogen-fixing bacteria harbored within the weevil's gut mediate this interaction, by supplying nitrogen to the system, which eventually promotes seed development. We studied the correlation between the weevil's existence and (i) root carbon and nitrogen content, (ii) soil water content and (iii) seed weight. Roots hosting weevils contained more nitrogen, heavier seeds and less carbon. In addition, water content was higher around the roots than in open spaces a short distance from the plant stem. Bacterial studies and nitrogen-fixation analyses, including molecular and chemical assays, indicated atmospheric nitrogen fixation in the larval stage and identified the bacterium. The coexistence of weevil and bacterial behavior coinciding with the plant's life cycle was revealed here by a long period of field observations. Out of over 60,000 known weevils, this is the only report of a weevil living most of its life underground without harming plants. The unique tri-party interaction described herein shows the important ecological role of desert plant roots and provides an example of a sustainable consortium of living organisms coping with the challenging desert environment.
ASJC Scopus subject areas