Leafcutter ants cultivate fungal gardens that serve as their primary food source. Working toward the goal of harnessing novel enzymes for breaking down plant biomass to produce cellulosic biofuels, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) researchers have been studying the process by which the fungi break down the plant leaves harvested by the ants and convert them into nutrients.
|New information about microbial activity in leafcutter ant gardens could improve biofuel production.
The DOE JGI had previously sequenced samples of the microbial communities found in the fungal gardens tended by these ants. In a new study published March 1, 2012 in The ISME Journal, the sequence data generated at the DOE JGI was used by researchers at the GLBRC and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to clarify the roles the microbes play in these fungal gardens.
Though there are thousands of bacterial species in the fungal gardens, the team found that just a tiny fraction of the bacteria were involved in breaking down plant matter; most of the bacterial species were involved in breaking down simpler sugars and making the essential amino acids and vitamins needed to provide ants with nutrients.
“Our results show that calling these ‘fungal gardens’ is pretty misleading; ‘fungus-bacterial communities’ would be far more accurate,” said PNNL researcher and study co-author Kristin Burnum in a statement. “It’s apparent that neither fungi nor bacteria work in isolation when it comes to leafcutter ant gardens. It’s possible that the same goes for biomass conversion; perhaps both fungi and bacteria are needed to efficiently turn plants into biofuel.”