Thursday, 15 September 2016

Crop domestication is a balancing act: Some ants are still trying to get it right

 Date: September 2, 2016
Source: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Skinny lines of ants snake through the rainforest carrying leaves and flowers above their heads -- fertilizer for industrial-scale, underground fungus farms. Soon after the dinosaur extinctions 60 million years ago, the ancestors of leaf-cutter ants swapped a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a bucolic existence on small-scale subsistence farms. A new study at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama revealed that living relatives of these earliest fungus-farming ants still have not domesticated their crop, a challenge also faced by early human farmers.

Modern leaf-cutter ants can not live without their fungus and the fungus can not live without the ants -- in fact, young queens carry a bit from the nests where they were born when they fly out to establish a new nest. The fungus, in turn, does not waste energy-producing spores to reproduce itself.

"For this sort of tight mutual relationship to develop, the interests of the ants and the fungi have to be completely aligned, like when business partners agree on all the terms in a contract," said Bill Wcislo, deputy director at the STRI and co-author of the new publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We found that the selfish interests of more primitive ancestors of leaf-cutting ants are still not in line with the selfish interests of their fungal partner, so complete domestication hasn't really happened yet."

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