We are all familiar with the examples of symbiotic relationships in nature consisting of two agents, like lichen or the co-evolvement between certain birds and flowering plants.

Do we know of any mutually symbiotic relationships that has three of a even higher number of agents?

Edit: To make a implicit distinction clear, let's specify that the agents in question have distinctive and fully interdependent roles in the symbiosis. In contrast to a scenario where a range of bird species might co-evolve for a single specific flower and have the same role as pollinators in the symbiosis.

This image represents my current models in thinking about this:

conceptual network types

The type I'm searching for here is mainly the "3-agent symbiosis", but the bidirectional one is of interest as well.


3 Answers 3


I think what you are asking for is "Multiple Mutualism". Normally,

Most of the known cases of multiple mutualism involve relationships in which two of the partners are at the same organizational level—usually two bacteria that might be interacting directly—but are both essential for the survival of the host

Entente cordiale: Multiple symbiosis illustrates the intricate interconnectivity of nature -Philip Hunter

For example, the glassy-winged sharpshooter (Homalodisca coagulata) primarily feeds on xylem-fluid which is low on organic nutrients…so it depends on 2 bacteria, Baumannia cicadellinicola and Sulcia muelleri. The sharpshooter provides these with raw carbon skeletons present in the xylem fluid, and those bacteria in return synthesizes vitamins, essential amino acids, etc. For more detailed study, see Wu et al, 2006.

However, there are also examples of three-way mutualistic symbioses in which all the partners are at different organizational levels. One known case involving a virus, a bacterium and an insect, see Moran NA, Degnan PH, Santos SR, Dunbar HE, Ochman H (2005) The players in a mutualistic symbiosis: insects, bacteria, viruses, and virulence genes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102: 16919–16926

Anyway, the essence as stated by Andreas Brune, Professor of Biogeochemistry at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany:

Multiple symbiosis is probably more widespread than we think, especially in view of the symbiotic systems involving different organizational levels, for example between bacterium, nematode and insect, or bacterium, protozoan and insect.

  • $\begingroup$ @inf3rno , thank you for your appreciation...but would you mind , if I ask you to kindly remove the last link( ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1559669/#__ffn_sectitle )from your answer, which does not really is relevant to the topic of "human microbiom" you stressed upon & more importantly was originally posted in my article......thanks again... $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2014 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ It is relevant by this sentence: "Multipartite symbiosis is much more common in the nature than we previously thought." - I found it before reading your answer, but if that matters you... $\endgroup$
    – inf3rno
    Nov 17, 2014 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ @inf3rno , I'm really sorry, if inadvertantly I offended you... $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2014 at 11:25

The human body contains a few billion microbes (more than human cells), so we live in symbiosis with many different species. Some of them protect us from infections, some of them help in the digestion, and so on... So I think the human body fulfills your requirements.

Normally we don't live in sterile environment. So we depend on our microflora in order to protect us against pathogens by preventing them to colonize e.g. our intestines. So without a sterile environment we would die in the lack of our microflora e.g. in a C. difficile infection. In exchange we give our microbes shelter (e.g. we protect them from oxygen, UV radiation, temperature changes) and food (e.g. carbohydrates we cannot digest, for example xylitol). So the human-microbiome relationship is a mutualism. Some of these microbes are not detected outside of the (not necessary human) host, so these relationships can be obligate. These microbes do not only support us, but each other as well. E.g. they help each other to digest nutritients (syntrophy), so they can live in mutualism with each other as well. So multipartite symbiosis certainly exists in the human body, and it seems like much more common in the nature than we previously thought.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm... I didn't think of this, and that is probably because I had in mind a relationship where all the agents were fully interdependent. I guess one could see the scenario you take as an example as an aggregation of 2-agent relationships? However, +1 for bringing this to the surface anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Nov 17, 2014 at 1:08
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not entirely sure that this constitutes symbiosis. It's a very valid point and +1 but I wonder if someone working in the field would consider it so. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Nov 17, 2014 at 2:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ symbiosis is a kind of relationship between two (or more) individuals from different species benefiting to both individuals (unlike commensalism or predation/parasitism), so I think the human microbiome is a good example. From @Alex comment above, I guess that Alex might be interested in obligate symbiosis. Human are totally dependent on their microbiome. There might have at least two species of bacteria living in humans gut that can't live anywhere else and without which humans cannot live. If this is the case, the human microbiome, is again a good example. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Nov 17, 2014 at 3:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Remi.b Not just in the gut, e.g. on the skin, mouth, etc... Btw. I think this is the usual in nature, every larger organism has its own microbiome. $\endgroup$
    – inf3rno
    Nov 17, 2014 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Remi.b Thank you for the term obligate symbiosis, but I would rather say that I'm interested in examples where the symbiotic chain is in the form of a ring (or maybe a distributed) network, whereas I can only see the human/micro-organism as a star network (a bunch of 2-agent symbiotic relations with a common agent). I will update the question once again. And on a second note, are we even truly in an obligate symbiosis here? If we would eat omnipotent antibiotics for breakfast, would we actually eventually die from the lack of micro-organisms? $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Nov 17, 2014 at 5:00

I can think of an example for the 3rd picture in your image "Common Agent With Multiple Symbiotic Relationships."

We have: 1.) a species of parasitoid wasp 2.) a species of plant and 3.) a species of moth.

The moth provides pollination activity for the plant. The plant provides a place for the moth to lay its eggs, and a food source for caterpillars once they hatch. Once the plant begins undergoing herbivory it releases Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which attract the wasp and inform it that there are potential hosts nearby. The parasitoid parasitizes either the eggs or the larvae (depending on the species of wasp) and helps the plant by limiting the damage it sustains due to herbivory (like a body guard).

Common example species could be: 1.) Wasps of the genus Cotesia (parasitize caterpillars) or of the genus Trichogramma (parasitize eggs). 2.) Plants of the family Solanaceae (Datura, tomatoes, or potatoes) 3.) Sphinx moths of the genus Manduca

There is a lot of literature on the subject of VOCs and parasitoids, but if you need a quick reference here is one: http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/9/739.short.


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