The researchers next removed ant brains, keeping the organs alive in special media. The fungus then was grown in the presence of brains from different ant species to determine what chemicals it produced for each brain.
"This was 'brain-in-a-jar' science at its best," said co-author David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology, Penn State. "It was necessary to reduce the complexity associated with the whole, living ant, and just ask what chemicals the fungus produces when it encounters the ant brain.
"You don't get to see a lot of behavior with fungi," he said. "You have to infer what they are doing by examining how they grow, where they grow and most important, what chemicals they secrete."
He explained that fungi are nourished via osmotrophy, by which they secrete compounds that degrade the bigger molecules in their environment into smaller ones that then can be taken up by the fungus. Using metabolomics, the researchers could determine precisely the chemical crosstalk between the fungus and the ant brain it grew alongside.
"We could see in the data that the fungus behaved differently in the presence of the ant brain it had co-evolved with," said de Bekker, whose Penn State co-authors also included Andrew Patterson, assistant professor of molecular toxicology, and Phil Smith, director of the Metabolomics Core Facility.
The researchers found thousands of unique chemicals, most of them completely unknown. This, according to Hughes, is not surprising, since little previous work has mined these fungi for the chemicals they produce.
But what did stand out were two known neuromodulators, guanobutyric acid (GBA) and sphingosine. These both have been reported to be involved in neurological disorders and were enriched when the fungus was gro
|Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer|