Three-Way Symbiosis Is Hard to Explain

Three-Way Symbiosis Is Hard to Explain

Symbiosis is one evidence of design in nature that we have discussed before. In the following excerpt from his book The Source, John Clayton told about a three-way symbiosis:

One area that strongly resists a natural explanation is the area of symbiotic relationships. A symbiotic relationship is one in which two organisms live in such a close relationship that one cannot live without the other and vice versa. For example, certain plants cannot live without certain insects that pollinate them or clean them or store up certain nutrients for them. At the same time, the plant provides nourishment and/or protection for the insect.

Sometimes such relationships exist between two plants or two animals
, like the venomous jellyfish known as the Portuguese man o’ war and the tiny fish living among its tentacles yet never getting stung. These types of two-way symbiotic relationships are difficult to explain by natural causes because the question automatically arises, which came first?

Suppose you agree that there are problems answering this question with two codependent life forms. How much more difficult would it be to explain the simultaneous evolution of a three-way symbiosis? Yet this is what we find with a leaf-cutting ant species in South America. These ants live in colonies of up to eight million. That is a number that surprisingly represents the collective biomass of an adult cow.

These ants cultivate mushrooms as a farmer grows crops, using leaf cuttings instead of soil. However, the ants are not able to eat the leaves because the leaves contain a natural insecticide. Neither can the mushrooms live on the leaves because they are coated with a prohibitive wax.
To make the three-way symbiosis work, the ants must carefully avoid the poison as they scrape the wax off the leaves. Without the wax, the leaves decay into a mulch in which the mushrooms can grow. The mushrooms, in turn, harmlessly absorb the insecticide, converting it into edible food for the ants. Neither creature could live without the other.

But there is more. Recent studies have revealed another partner necessary to sustain the ant/mushroom relationship. The mushrooms have a parasite enemy that would destroy them. However, they can be protected with an antibiotic produced by a specific bacterium that, coincidentally, lives on the ants’ bodies. So the bacterium depends on the host ant’s body for life. The ant depends on the food produced by the mushrooms for life. Finally, the mushrooms depend on the ants’ farming practices and the ants’ pet bacterium for life.

This three-way symbiosis is irreducibly complex. If anyone of the partners is missing, the entire group dies. The only way such a codependent society could be produced is by intelligent design. Any other attempted explanation quickly becomes a quest for the impossible dream.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data came from articles in the journal Nature. You can find them HERE and HERE.

This article was adapted from The Source: Eternal Design or Infinite Accident? (page 47) by John N. Clayton. This book is available for purchase HERE.