The Irreversible Loss of a Decomposition Pathway Marks the Single Origin of an Ectomycorrhizal Symbiosis

Microbial symbioses have evolved repeatedly across the tree of life, but the genetic changes underlying transitions to symbiosis are largely unknown, especially for eukaryotic microbial symbionts. We used the genus Amanita, an iconic group of mushroom-forming fungi engaged in ectomycorrhizal symbioses with plants, to identify both the origins and potential genetic changes maintaining the stability of this mutualism. A multi-gene phylogeny reveals one origin of the symbiosis within Amanita, with a single transition from saprotrophic decomposition of dead organic matter to biotrophic dependence on host plants for carbon. Associated with this transition are the losses of two cellulase genes, each of which plays a critical role in extracellular decomposition of organic matter. However a third gene, which acts at later stages in cellulose decomposition, is retained by many, but not all, ectomycorrhizal species. Experiments confirm that symbiotic Amanita species have lost the ability to grow on complex organic matter and have therefore lost the capacity to live in forest soils without carbon supplied by a host plant. Irreversible losses of decomposition pathways are likely to play key roles in the evolutionary stability of these ubiquitous mutualisms.