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Bacteria tend leafcutter ants' gardens

leagues in Richland examined proteins, the workhorses of the cell that perform the tasks needed to keep organisms alive and well. They used mass spectrometers at EMSL, the Department of Energy's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at PNNL, to identify proteins in an A. colombica nest.

They found proteins that were involved a surprising number of different metabolic pathways, including:

  • Breaking down complex sugars that make plants tough and durable, but difficult to digest
  • Transporting sugars, allowing broken-down sugars to be used for energy
  • Making amino acids, the buildings blocks of proteins
  • Making vitamin B5, which is needed to both break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats and to make energy from nutrients

When compared to all other bacteria in Currie's large library of bacterial genes, very few just 0.2 to 0.6 percent of the garden bacteria were involved in breaking down cellulose. Instead, most of the garden bacteria were involved in breaking down simpler sugars, indicating that perhaps fungi initially breaks down cellulose and the bacteria then turn the partially digested sugars that result into a variety of nutrients that could promote the fungi's growth or even nourish the ants themselves.

"Our results show that calling these 'fungal gardens' is pretty misleading; 'fungus-bacterial communities' would be far more accurate," Burnum said. "Bacteria are not only integral residents of these communities, but they perform essential tasks that keep the communities and the ants that help cultivate them living."

Next, the team plans to analyze the fungi, lipids and various metabolic products found in the gardens.

This study's findings and future results could advance the work of scientists who are looking at fungal enzymes to make biofuel out of plants. The enzymes, or biological catalysts, of fungi are exceptionally talented at breaking down cellulose in plants, making them

Contact: Franny White
DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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