The phytopathogenic fungus Rhizopus microsporus harbours a bacterial endosymbiont (Mycetohabitans rhizoxinica) for the production of the toxin rhizoxin, the causative agent of rice seedling blight. This toxinogenic bacterial-fungal alliance is, however, not restricted to the plant disease, but has been detected in numerous environmental isolates from geographically distinct sites covering all five continents. Yet, the ecological role of rhizoxin beyond rice seedling blight has been unknown.
Here we show that rhizoxin serves the fungal host in fending off protozoan and metazoan predators. Fluorescence microscopy and co-culture experiments with the fungivorous amoeba Protostelium aurantium revealed that ingestion of R. microsporus spores is toxic to P. aurantium. This amoebicidal effect is caused by the bacterial rhizoxin congener rhizoxin S2, which is also lethal towards the model nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. By combining stereomicroscopy, automated image analyses, and quantification of nematode movement we show that the fungivorous nematode Aphelenchus avenae actively feeds on R. microsporus that is lacking endosymbionts, while worms co-incubated with symbiotic R. microsporus are significantly less lively.
This work uncovers an unexpected ecological role of rhizoxin as shield against micropredators. This finding suggests that predators may function an evolutionary driving force to maintain toxin-producing endosymbionts in non-pathogenic fungi.