Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Ant agriculture: 50 million years of success


Fungus-growing ants practice agriculture and have been doing so for the past 50 million years according to research published in the Jan. 17 issue of Science. These ants not only grow fungus gardens underground for food but also have adapted to handling parasitic "weeds" that infect their crops.

The team of scientists who collaborated on this analysis includes Ted Schultz of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Bess Wong of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Cameron Currie and Alison Stuart of the University of Kansas, Stephen Rehner of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ulrich Mueller of the University of Texas at Austin, Gi-Ho Sung and Joseph Spatafora of Oregon State University, and Neil Strauss of the University of Toronto.

"The ants, garden fungi, and weeds have all been co-evolving since ant agriculture first got started -- that’s around 50 million years of symbiosis," said Dr. Ted Schultz, research entomologist in the Entomology Section of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

By studying DNA sequences from ants, garden fungi and fungal weeds, the research team was able to peer millions of years into the past to see how this co-evolutionary system evolved. The researchers learned that the ants, their garden fungi and the parasitic fungal weeds have been living in a co-evolved, complex system for a very long time, probably 50 million years or longer. During that time, they have been locked in a never-ending evolutionary "arms race," in which the ants and garden fungi are perpetually evolving new ways to control the parasitic fungal weeds, and the weeds are perpetually developing new ways to continue to infect fungus gardens.

There is a fourth factor in the ant colonies, a kind of bacteria that the ants cultivate on the outsides of their bodies. These bacteria produce an antibiotic that specifically suppresses the growth of the weed fungi, and the ants use this antibiotic to keep their gardens healthy.

"We suspect that it’s going to turn out that this antibiotic use also goes back to the beginning of ant agriculture," said Schultz.

Past work by researchers established phylogenies (evolutionary histories) for the ants and their cultivated fungi, and it also established that the ant gardens almost always contain weed molds in the genus "Escovopsis," which are found nowhere else in nature -- only in ant gardens. One of the new findings in this research paper is that the scientists now have a phylogeny for the weed fungi, an association that appears to be very ancient.

The collaboration that produced this work is supported by a five-year National Science Foundation special program (Integrated Research Challenges in Environmental Biology) grant, and the Smithsonian Institution is the designated permanent repository for all of the project’s ant, fungal, and bacterial specimens, preserved both for morphological and molecular study. The museum has set up an archival liquid N2 DNA repository for the molecular collections generated by the study.

"The Smithsonian’s repository of ant, fungal and bacterial specimens is an extremely important resource because most of these organisms have never been collected before," said Schultz. "Ant agriculture has become a model system that will be studied for decades or even centuries into the future -- and the Smithsonian’s morphological and DNA specimen collections will be the source of the data for many of those studies."

The Entomology Section deals with insects and their relatives, an immense assemblage comprising about 95 percent of the described animal species of the world. Scientific research by staff concentrates on basic taxonomy and life history, but may include studies of population biology, biogeography, ecology, behavior and invasive species. The Smithsonian’s National Entomological Collection harbors some 35 million entomological specimens, and is essential to researchers in the United States and throughout the world.

The National Museum of Natural History, located at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., welcomed more than 6 million people during the year 2002, making it the most visited natural history museum in the world. Opened in 1910, the Museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It also fosters critical scientific research as well as educational programs and exhibitions that present the work of its scientists and curators to the public. The Museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day. Admission is free.

Michele Urie | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht First time-lapse footage of cell activity during limb regeneration
25.10.2016 | eLife

nachricht Phenotype at the push of a button
25.10.2016 | Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Greater Range and Longer Lifetime

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VDI presents International Bionic Award of the Schauenburg Foundation

26.10.2016 | Awards Funding

3-D-printed magnets

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>