Emory researchers are tapping the latest-generation DNA sequencing technology to become the first explorers of the genomics of agricultural ant societies.
"This project is one of the first attempts to use genomics to understand a complex interacting system, rather than a single organism," says Nicole Gerardo, assistant professor of biology and lead investigator of the project. "If we can understand how these ants have evolved to process huge amounts of organic material over 50 million years, we might discover more efficient ways to process our own waste materials, produce bio-fuels, or improve our agricultural methods."
Gerardo is an expert in the ecology and evolution of fungus-growing ants. These "gardening" insects cut and transport leaves to nourish their food crops of fungi. Some ant species can process 15 percent of the leaves within a dense rain forest. An array of microbes have co-evolved along with the ants and the fungi including fungal pathogens that attack the ants' crops, and other microbes that benefit the ants and their crops.
As a recipient of the highly competitive 10 Giga-base Grant Program for DNA sequencing and transcriptome analysis from Roche Applied Sciences, Gerardo put together a project to not only sequence ant genomes for the first time, but also the genomes of some of the key bacteria and fungi associated with the gardens of these ants. She selected two highly sophisticated ant species for sequencing, and one ancient, more primitive species.
Entering new territory
Roche will sequence the DNA using its proprietary high-throughput genome sequencing technology, which will provide 10 giga-bases of data an amount equivalent to three human genomes. Previously, it would have required millions of dollars and extensive manpower to sequence just one organism.
"We're entering completely new territory," says James Taylor, assistant professor of biology and math and computer science at
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