Bacteroidales ectosymbionts of gut flagellates shape the nitrogen-fixing community in dry-wood termites.
Although it is well documented that the lack of nitrogen in the diet of wood-feeding termites is compensated by the nitrogen-fixing capacity of their gut microbiota, the bacteria responsible for this activity are largely unknown. Here, we analyzed the diversity and expression of nitrogenase genes (homologs of nifH) in four species of dry-wood termites (Kalotermitidae), which thrive on a particularly nitrogen-poor resource. Although each species harbored a highly diverse suite of termite-specific homologs in their microliter-sized hindgut, only a core set related to nifH genes of Treponema and Azoarcus spp., 'Azobacteroides pseudotrichonymphae', the first member of the Bacteroidales identified as a diazotroph, and termite-gut-specific anfH genes of hitherto unknown origin were preferentially expressed. Transcription patterns corroborated that the populations of active diazotrophs differ fundamentally between termite genera. Capillary-picked suspensions of the flagellates Devescovina arta and Snyderella tabogae revealed that their bacterial ectosymbionts each possess two paralogs of nifH, which apparently have been acquired consecutively during evolution of Bacteroidales, but only one of them (anfH) is actively expressed. Transcription patterns correlated neither with the molybdenum content of the diet nor with intestinal hydrogen concentrations, measured with microsensors. We propose that the nitrogen-fixing community in different dry-wood termites is shaped by the symbionts of their specific flagellate populations. Our findings suggest that the diazotrophic nature of 'Armantifilum devescovinae' has an important role in the nitrogen metabolism of dry-wood termites and is the driving force of co-evolution with its flagellate host.