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Better ant fungus farming through chemistry

Leaf-cutter ants feed the leaves to fungi and eat the fungi. Another fungus can parasitize their crop. A few years ago, it was reported that bacteria living on the ants' bodies make antifungal compounds that kill the parasite.

I wondered about this: wouldn't a bacterium that invests resources in antifungal production grow more slowly than a mutant that avoids this costly investment? In the long run, this might hurt ants and bacteria alike, but natural selection has no foresight. So why haven't bacterial "cheaters" that don't make antifungals displaced "altruists" that do? When yeasts (single-cell fungi) were found on the same ants, I suggested that antifungal production might benefit individual bacteria in their war with the yeasts, with activity against the parasitic fungus as a side effect. (Similarly, bacteria that make antibiotics that protect plant roots from fungi have their own selfish reasons.)

Consistent with this hypothesis, it turns out that the antifungal chemicals made by the bacteria aren't active only against the parasitic fungi, and may even harm the fungal crop. But the bacteria presumably benefit the ants more than they harm them, because the ants have specialized structures and secretions whose main function seems to be to support the bacteria. At least, this is true of some fungus-growing ant species. Other species have apparently abandoned use of these bacteria. Instead, they control harmful fungi with antibiotics they make themselves, in special glands. This is an example of a species abandoning one symbiosis (ant/bacteria) when it's no longer beneficial, while retaining a beneficial symbiosis (ant/fungus).
Black lines shows fungus-growing ant lineages that rely on antibiotics they make themselves, rather than those made by symbiotic bacteria, to control parasitic fungi that attack their fungal crop.
Source: Hermógenes Fernández-Marín, Jess K. Zimmerman, David R. Nash, Jacobus J. Boomsma and William T. Wcislo (2009) Reduced biological control and enhanced chemical pest management in the evolution of fungus farming in ants. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276:2263-2269.


To combat disease, most fungus-growing ants use antibiotics from mutualistic bacteria (Pseudonocardia) that are cultured on the ants' exoskeletons and chemical cocktails from exocrine glands, especially the metapleural glands.

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