Friday, January 06, 2006


Ants Harbor Antibiotic to Protect Their Crops
For the past few millennia, ants of the Attini tribe have tended gardens of fungus that they eat. Over the past few decades scientists have studied these agricultural insects, trying to understand how their gardens grew in the first place. Now a group of scientists have discovered that the ants carry a potent antibiotic bacteria in special pockets on their bodies that help control a parasite that can ruin their fungus harvest.

"Every ant species [that we have examined] has different, highly modified structures to support different types of bacteria," Currie observes. "This indicates that the ants have rapidly adapted to maintain the bacteria. It also indicates that the coevolution between the bacteria and the ants, as well as the fungus and parasites, has been occurring since very early on, apparently for tens of millions of years."

In fact, more than 200 species of ants display this complex symbiosis, according to Currie. "It now appears that the fungus-growing ants are more modified for culturing their mutualistic bacteria than for their mutualistic fungi," Currie notes.

The unexpected finding also bears promise for human agriculture and medicine: the ants have been able to avoid promoting resistance for as long as 50 million years. "I think it has to do with the ants having several mechanisms to suppress the parasite," Currie says. "In addition to the bacteria, the ants have specialized behaviors that involve removing the parasite from the fungus garden."

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