Enter the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, two species of which were isolated in laboratory and field colonies of the ants. But merely finding the bacteria, Suen emphasizes, wasn't enough. It was necessary to prove that the ants were actually utilizing the nutrient to confirm a true mutualism.
"This is important because it could be that the bacteria are fixing nitrogen for themselves and not actually benefiting the ants," says Suen. "Showing that the nitrogen fixed by the bacteria is incorporated into the ants establishes that these bacteria aren't just transient visitors."
One other type of insect, the termite, has been previously shown to utilize nitrogen-fixing bacteria. And other bacteria-ant symbioses have been documented.
However, the discovery of the nitrogen-fixing mutualism in ants has significant ecological implications given the dominance of ants in virtually all of the word's terrestrial ecosystems. The new work suggests that an important source of nitrogen in the American tropics and subtropics is derived through the partnership of ant and bacteria.
Says Currie: "It is possible that this fixed nitrogen can have ecosystem scale impacts."
The partnership with bacteria, which Currie says could extend back to the origins of the gardening ants some 50 million years ago, confers a competitive edge that has permitted the leaf-cutters to prevail in their environments.
Says Suen: "Without nitrogen, there is no way these guys could achieve such large colony sizes. These ants are one of the most dominant insects in the Neotropics. The ability to have colonies with millions of ants is predicted to require a tremendous amount of nitrogen."
|Contact: Cameron Currie|
University of Wisconsin-Madison