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Symbiosis facts for kids

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Alpheus bellulus
Blind shrimp digs burrow,
goby fish keeps lookout

Symbiosis (pl. symbioses) means living together. It describes close and long-term relationships between different species. The term was used by Albert Bernhard Frank to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichens. and by Anton de Bary in 1879, as "the living together of unlike organisms".

A symbiont is an organism living in a relationship with another species in which one or both get benefits. When one species lives inside another species, or a microscopic symbiont lives inside the cells of a host, it is called an endosymbiont.

The relevance of symbiosis is its frequency and its evolutionary significance. There appear to be no higher plants or animals without symbionts. Those symbionts are of great importance to the larger organisms, who in most cases would be unable to live as they do without their symbionts. Mycorrhiza in higher plants, and gut flora in insects and vertebrates are examples. Humans are no exception.

Furthermore, most of these associations are between organisms not just from different species, but from different kingdoms. And lastly, the cells of all eukaryotes contain organelles which are descendants of symbiotic relationships which began at least a billion years ago. Mitochondria and plastids are examples. The conclusion must be that symbiosis has been highly significant in the evolution of life.


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Leafhoppers nymphs protected by an army of Meat ants. The ants feed on secretions from the nymphs

The definition of symbiosis has been controversial. Some believe symbiosis should only refer to persistent mutualisms, while others believe it should apply to all kinds of lon-term biological interactions.

After 130 years of debate, current biology and ecology textbooks now use the latter "de Bary" definition or an even broader definition (where symbiosis means all species interactions). The restrictive definition (where symbiosis means mutualism only) is no longer used.

The widest definition includes parasitism (in which one organism is helped and the other organism is hurt), mutualism (in which both organisms are helped), commensalism (in which one organism is helped and the other is not affected), and competition (in which both organisms are hurt).

Types of symbiosis

The various forms of symbiosis include:

Type 1: Partners keep their bodies separate

Symbiosis does not always benefit both partners. This is what may happen:

  • parasitism, in which the association has disadvantages for one of the two. One may even destroy or kill the other. (+ –)
  • mutualism, in which the association has advantages for both (+ +)
  • commensalism, in which one member of the association benefits while the other is not affected (+ 0)
  • competition, in which both members of the association are fighting over food or other needs. (– –)

Type 2: Partners live as one organism

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Rhizobia bacteria in nodules fix nitrogen
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Monotropa uniflora, a flowering plant which parasitises certain fungi.
Dardanus pedunculatus (Hermit crab)
Dardanus pedunculatus Hermit crab with symbiotic anemones Calliactis sp. attached to its shell. The anemones provide protection with their stinging cells, and they get mobility from the crab.

This kind of symbiosis is called endosymbiosis. Examples are:

Almost for certain, this happened to form the eukaryote cell. That's the type of cell all animals and plants are made of. The organelles inside the cell, such as mitochondria and chloroplasts, contain some DNA. This DNA is the remnant of a once separate bacterium. The theory is that the eukaryote cell evolved by the fusion of several bacteria or archaea organisms.

Examples of symbiosis

  • An example of mutual symbiosis is the relationship between clownfish that live among the tentacles of tropical sea anemones. The clownfish protects the anemone from other fish. Clownfish waste excreted provides vital nutrients, and they can boost their hosts’ oxygen supplies at night too. The stinging tentacles of the anemone protect the anemone fish from its predators. A special mucus on the clownfish protects it from the stinging tentacles.
  • Another example is the goby fish, which sometimes lives together with a shrimp. The shrimp digs and cleans up a burrow in the sand in which both the shrimp and the goby live. The shrimp is almost blind, and is vulnerable to predators when above ground. When a predator approaches, the goby touches the shrimp with its tail as a signal. When that happens both the shrimp and goby quickly retreat into the burrow.
  • A lichen is an intimate combination of a fungus with an alga. The alga lives inside the fungus, which must have the alga to survive. The alga, on the other hand, can survive on its own. The result of the union is a flat, coloured lichen which grows on rocks and other surfaces in the open air.
  • Herbivores are host to gut bacteria which help them digest plant material. Plant cell walls are made of cellulose, and almost no animal has developed an enzyme to digest this material. Therefore, at least for herbivores which eat leaves, the bacteria are essential.
  • Some species of ants 'farm' aphids, protecting them from predators, and moving them from one feeding site to another. The ants consume the sweet sticky fluid which aphids secrete after sucking plant sap.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Simbiosis para niños

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