Bacterial transfer from Pristionchus entomophagus nematodes to the invasive ant Myrmica rubra and the potential for colony mortality in coastal Maine.

A collaborative paper on bacterial transfer in insects and the possible ecological impacts of that in the wild has been published in iScience! This work began a decade ago in the labs of Dr. Ellie Groden, recently retired Professor of Entomology in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine, and later Dr. Patricia Stock, a Professor in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences at the University of Arizona, who were investigating colony collapse of European fire ants (Myrmica rubra) which are invasive to Maine. The ants have a nasty bite, and can dramatically disturb the local plant and insect wildlife in coastal Maine.

Slide from Ishaq et al. Entomology 2020 presentation

When these invasive ant colonies collapsed, Drs. Groden and Stock wanted to find out why, as a possible means of developing a biological control strategy. It was thought that particular nematodes would ingest soil bacteria, and transfer it to ants once the worms invaded ant tissues to complete parts of their life cycle. This particular worm infection doesn’t kill the ants, but perhaps the soil bacteria were. Ants were collected from different colony sites, and investigations on the nematode worms inhabiting the ants were conducted.

Slide from Ishaq et al. Entomology 2020 presentation

Most of the work for this project was completed several years ago, with the exception of DNA sequencing data from a bacterial transfer experiment. I was added to the project by my collaborator at UMaine, Dr. Jean MacRae, an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who introduced me to the research team and shared the 16S rRNA dataset to use in my AVS 590 data analysis class in spring 2020. That semester was when the pandemic hit, and forced the course to move to remote-only instruction in March. UMaine graduate students Alice Hotopp and Sam Silverbrand were taking the class and learning 16S analysis on this dataset, and I mentored them through the analysis all the way to manuscript writing despite the incredible challenges that spring threw our way.

At the completion of the course, we shared the draft manuscript with the rest of the research team, who mentioned that several undergraduate honor’s theses had been written about the earlier experiment, but never published in a scientific journal. The team spent summer 2020 combining the three papers into one massive draft. The pandemic slowed down manuscript review, understandably, but I’m pleased to say that it was accepted for publication! In addition, this collaboration has led to further collaborations in the Ishaq Lab, several presentations (listed below), and is Sam’s first scientific publication, congrats Sam!!

Related Presentations

Alice Hotopp, A., Samantha Silverbrand, Suzanne L. Ishaq, Jean MacRae, S. Patricia Stock, Eleanor Groden. “Can a necromenic nematode serve as a biological Trojan horse for an invasive ant?Ecological Society of America 2021 (virtual). Aug 2-6, 2021 (accepted poster).

Ishaq*, S.L., Hotopp, A., Silverbrand, S.,   MacRae, J.,  Stock, S.P.,  Groden, E. “Can a necromenic nematode serve as a biological Trojan horse for an invasive ant?” Entomological Society of America 2020 (virtual). Nov 15-25, 2020. (invited talk)

Illustrated image of a cross section of the ground. A light brown ant is pictured in the ground along with a microbe. Text to the left of the image reads, "Can a necromenic nematode serve as a biological Trojan horse for an invasive ant?". The names of six professors are listed below the text and image at the bottom left. In the bottom right corner, text reads, "The University of Maine" with "The University of Arizona" below it.

IshaqS.L., A. Hotopp2, S. Silverbrand2, J.E. Dumont, A. Michaud, J. MacRae, S. P. Stock, E. Groden. 2021. Bacterial transfer from Pristionchus entomophagus nematodes to the invasive ant Myrmica rubra and the potential for colony mortality in coastal Maine. iScience. In Press. Impact 5.08.


The necromenic nematode Pristionchus entomophagus has been frequently found in nests of the invasive European ant Myrmica rubra in coastal Maine, United States, and may contribute to ant mortality and collapse of colonies by transferring environmental bacteria. Paenibacillus and several other bacterial species were found in the digestive tracts of nematodes harvested from collapsed ant colonies. Serratia marcescens, Serratia nematodiphila, and Pseudomonas fluorescens were collected from the hemolymph of nematode-infected wax moth (Galleria mellonella) larvae.

Virulence against waxworms varied by site of origin of the nematodes. In adult nematodes, bacteria were highly concentrated in the digestive tract with none observed on the cuticle. In contrast juveniles had more on the cuticle than in the digestive tract. .  Host species was the primary factor affecting bacterial community profiles, but Spiroplasma sp. and Serratia marcescens sequences were shared across ants, nematodes, and nematode-exposed G. mellonella larvae. 

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