Mutualism

Perhaps you have heard in films or at meetings at an office job or when reading official documents from a company; that a certain decision is "mutually beneficial" for two partners or people. The same principle applies in community ecology, where a certain living situation can be beneficial for two entities. Mutualism is a beautiful phenomenon that we can see in nature, and that we experience as humans ourselves. We will examine the principles of mutualism, discovering unique examples and analyzing trends and features. Mutualism can be found at many levels of life, from microbial to arthropods to mammals like us, and all are important to know.

Mutualism Mutualism

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Contents
Table of contents

    Mutualism vs symbiosis

    Mutualism is a term for a relationship between two creatures of different species (or two groups of creatures). Mutualism differs from symbiosis in that it is a particular kind of symbiosis. If symbiotic relationships are a giant umbrella, mutualism is just one of such terms that fits under it.

    Symbiosis is defined as any relationship between two organisms in which one of them benefits. Mutualism is a type of symbiosis in which both organisms (from different species) benefit from their relationship.

    Besides mutualism, there are several other types of symbiosis. One such symbiotic relationship is commensalism, in which one organism benefits from the relationship, and the other neither benefits nor is harmed. In commensalism, there is a positive effect on one organism, and no effect or a neutral effect on the other.

    Another form of symbiosis is parasitism, in which one organism benefits but the other is harmed by or during the association. Parasitism leads to a positive effect on one organism, and a negative effect on the other.

    Yet another form of symbiosis is predation. In predation, one organism benefits from the relationship by killing and eating the other organism. Predation is distinguished from parasitism by the fact that an organism dies in predation, but is only harmed in parasitism.

    A notable non-symbiotic relationship, that still bears mentioning is amensalism. In amensalism, one organism is harmed or killed by the relationship while the other is unaffected. We can see that amensalism does not qualify as a type of symbiosis because in symbiosis at least one organism must benefit from the relationship. Amensalism is sometimes called a form of antibiosis.

    Mutualism definition and examples in nature

    Mutualism is defined as a symbiotic relationship in which one organism of a particular species benefits and another distinct organism of a different species benefits as well.

    By definition, symbiosis requires a close association between organisms of different species (close enough for them to help or harm each other), and in mutualism, both organisms have a net positive gain due to their relationship and this close association.

    There are many examples of mutualism that can be observed in nature. A classic example that you may remember from your days of learning plant biology, is the mutualistic relationship between many plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

    To jog your memory, Nitrogen is present in very large amounts in the air (around 78% of the air is nitrogen, with oxygen making up 21% and the rest being mostly carbon dioxide and inert gases) but most plants cannot harness it themselves. Yet, nitrogen is still required in most plants to make chlorophyll (the green pigment required for photosynthesis) and many plant products, especially legumes (beans).

    Because they cannot trap nitrogen directly from the air, legume plants turn to nitrogen-fixing bacteria like Rhizobium, which are located on the plants' roots and can grab nitrogen from the soil. Rhizobium does nitrogen fixation and shares this nitrogen with the plant, who then utilizes it. With all this newly accessible nitrogen, the plant can go into overdrive, creating its own products.

    The legume plant makes many more beans, and it also makes more chlorophyll and can undergo more efficient photosynthesis. The efficient photosynthesis produces more photosynthates, which are important products of photosynthesis that can be used by both the plant and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The most important of the photosynthates are carbohydrates and sugars, which Rhizobium bacteria happily munch on.

    Thus, the increased nitrogen availability due to the presence of bacteria leads to more chlorophyll and a hardier plant, which leads to more photosynthesis which leads to more carbohydrate plant products, which leads to happy, munching bacteria. We can see how this relationship is mutually beneficial for both species (Fig. 1).

    Mutualism Nitrogen fixing bacteria mutualism illinois news bureauNitrogen fixing bacteria and mutualism.

    Another example of mutualism will be very familiar to purveyors of children's films made in the early 2000s. The sea anemone and the clownfish display a mutually beneficial relationship because clownfish can live amongst the anemone's tentacles. (Yes, tentacles. Even though sea anemones look like plants, they are actually animals!).

    We say sea anemones to distinguish them from anemones which are indeed plants; they are delicate flowers with dark centers.

    The ocean floor, where clownfish live, can be quite a dangerous place, and sea anemones make the perfect hiding place for longer-term dwelling, or to dart in and escape from a predator. Not only can sea anemones somewhat conceal the clownfish, but more importantly, they are quite poisonous. The tentacles of sea anemones contain a potent neurotoxin that is dangerous to other sea-dwelling animals like plankton, fish, jellyfish, barracudas, and even sharks. Some of these animals are the predators of clownfish, so a quick dart into the embrace of the stinging tentacles of a sea anemone may save the life of a clownfish many times over.

    Conveniently, clownfish themselves are impervious to the stings of the sea anemone neurotoxin, so they are not harmed by brushing against its tentacles. Clownfish and sea anemones are so closely related, that another name for clownfish is the anemonefish (Fig. 2)!

    Mutualism clownfish and anemones asknatureclownfish and anemones mutualism

    We know the benefit that a relationship with the sea anemone has for the clownfish, but what is the benefit of this association for the sea anemone? Clownfish residing in the sea anemone cause movement of water, which is thought to lead to increased oxygenation for the sea anemone. Also, clownfish due to their coloring, attract some prey that the sea anemone can then use its toxic tentacles to kill before eating. As gross as it may sound, clownfish poop is very helpful to the sea anemone, acting as a nutrient-rich material to help algae grow within the anemone.

    Algae and sea anemones have a mutually beneficial relationship of their own, where the algae provide sugars and carbohydrates to the anemone, and the anemone provides other nutrients and increased sunlight exposure to the algae.

    Types of mutualism

    Mutualistic relationships can be further parsed into specific types. The following are the broad categories of mutualism.

    1. Resource-resource mutualism - this is a mutually beneficial relationship in which both parties provide the other with resources that each otherwise would have difficulty (sometimes impossibility) accessing. Also known as biologicalbarter

      • Example: Legume plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

    2. Service-resource mutualism - this is a mutually beneficial relationship in which one party does a service that benefits the other, while the other organism provides the first with resources in exchange.

      • Example: Plants that provide certain ants with nectar (the resource) in exchange for the ants living on the plants and protecting them from ladybugs that would otherwise devour the plant (the service).

    3. Service-service mutualism - this is a mutually beneficial relationship in which both parties provide the other with services. This is quite rare.

      • Example: The sea anemone and the clownfish.

    Mutualism vs commensalism, with human examples

    We know how the definitions of mutualism and commensalism differ. In mutualism, both organisms benefit; while in commensalism only one benefits while the other remains neutral.

    Yet while these definitions are quite succinct, the real-life distinctions are not so easily delineated. Especially in humans, some of the most complex of the organisms we have on this planet; we cannot always pinpoint when a form of symbiosis is either mutualism or commensalism.

    For example, our gut microbiome is a form of symbiosis. The organisms within the symbiotic relationship are human beings and the bacteria that live in our gut. The party who benefits is obvious - human beings do, as bacteria help us do everything from producing Vitamin K to regulating our metabolism.

    Yet it is unclear if we benefit the bacteria to any measurable extent. Some scientists say yes, by providing a more protective environment to live in. The majority say no, feeling that bacteria don't really need our guts nor benefit from living there. Thus these gut bacteria are called commensal bacteria, to imply the commensalism of the relationship; however, the debate rages on. Some people still consider them to be an example of mutualism, and different sources say different things.

    Another example of symbiosis with humans as a species of interest is with domesticated dogs. Originally, the theory is that our domestication of dogs was brought about by commensalism. Our ancestors would kill and eat meat and leave the scraps nearby, and wild dogs would later come by and eat it. Eventually, these dogs would just follow humans around and some of them would eventually be tamed, starting the lineage of the domesticated dogs we have today. We could say, then, that dogs and humans exhibit a form of commensalism.

    However, at this point, dogs benefit humans tremendously, doing labor as sheep dogs, seeing-eye dogs, and police dogs, just to name a few. This is not to talk of the companionship and emotional support that dogs bring to many people. Now, it seems much more likely that our relationship with dogs is one of mutualism. In fact, if our modern symbiotic relationship with dogs is still considered commensalism, it appears that we humans are now the benefiting party while dogs are the neutral ones, instead of the other way around.

    Process and features of mutual relationships in biology

    We described how there appears to have been an evolution of the human-dog relationship to one of mutualism from an origin of commensalism. This demonstrates to us how symbiotic relationships can shift over time, with the participating organisms often evolving together.

    Mutualism is very important to our ecosystem, and indeed life, as we know it because over 80% of plant life, relies on bacteria and/or fungi to help it have access to certain nutrients that it could otherwise not trap from the air or the soil; ranging from inorganic metals to nitrogen gas.

    Mutualism helps create our world through processes of pollination and seed spreading as well. Bees go from flower to flower sipping sweet nectar, but in the process of doing so, they also spread the pollen of these flowering plants to other plants, helping them to reproduce.

    Many of these mutualistic mechanisms demonstrate how key species have evolved and changed together as well over time. We must know that mutualism is a type of symbiotic relationship utilized over and again in nature, because of its clear benefits to multiple species.

    Mutualism - Key takeaways

    • Mutualism is defined as a symbiotic relationship in which both parties benefit from the association.
    • Mutualism typically is seen in species that have co-evolved together over time.
    • Mutualism is distinct from commensalism, where one species does not benefit but also is not harmed, however as with our symbiotic relationship with our gut microbiome, it is not always easy to determine which is at play.
    • Examples of mutualism include sea anemones and clownfish, and legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
    • Types of mutualism include resource-resource, service-resource, and the very rare service-service.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Mutualism

    What does mutualism mean in biology?


     In mutualism, two different organisms both have a net positive gain due to their relationship and close association.  

    What are 3 examples of mutualism?


    Clownfish and anemones, humans and dogs, Rhizobia and legumes

    What are characteristics of mutualism?


    They tend to involve two species that co-evolved over time.

    What is the importance of mutualism?


    It is important due to the mutually beneficial nature to both members of the symbiosis.

    What is a fact about mutualism? 

    Mutualism is factually defined as a symbiotic relationship in which both parties benefit.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Dogs and humans relationship started off as one of commensalism but now appears more like ______

    Sea anemones and clownfish are an example of what kind of symbiosis

    True or false: a vulture feasting on a decaying carcass is an example of mutualism

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