Archive for March 2012
Ants are amazing insects, and fungus-growing ants are perhaps the most amazing of all. This group includes the leafcutter ants that you’ve probably seen on David Attenborough’s TV programmes, carrying carefully cut leaf fragments to their nests along well-defined trails in the rainforest. Millions of ants can be found within a single underground nest the size of a three-storey house. Brilliantly, and without using a single moving part, the nests are perfectly air conditioned – maintaining constant temperature and humidity.
“But wait,” I hear you cry. “This is all very well, but what does it have to do with microbiology?” Well, did you ever wonder what the ants do with the leaves that they so diligently carry through the jungle? They don’t eat them; instead, they strip the waxy coating from the surface of the leaf and feed the mashed-up leaf material to a symbiotic fungus that they grow in ‘gardens’ found within the colony.
This fungus is the sole food source for their colonies and has co-evolved with the ants over 50 million years, during which it has developed structures rich in sugars and fats that the ants harvest to feed to their larvae and queen.