Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Without 46 million year-old bacteria, turtle ants would need more bite and less armor

March 6, 2018, Drexel University

You've probably heard about poop pills, the latest way for humans to get benevolent bacteria into their guts. But it seems that a group of ants may have been the original poop pill pioneers—46 million years ago.

A new collaborative study, published in Nature Communications, determined that turtle ants (Cephalotes) are able to supplement their low-nitrogen diets by passing helpful bacteria from older ants to younger ones through anal secretions. Once this is done, the now-internalized microbes (tiny bacteria) naturally produce the nitrogen necessary for turtle ants to survive.

"Turtle ants eat a lot of food that is hard to digest and contains few essential nutrients in accessible form," said Jacob Russell, PhD, an associate professor in Drexel University's College of Arts and Sciences and the paper's senior author. "The fact that they can subsist on such diets and have moved away from aggressively competing for more optimal food resources with other ants is almost certainly a function of their investment in symbioses with gut bacteria."

Carried out by researchers at Drexel, the University of California San Diego, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, The Rockefeller University, Calvin College, and the Field Museum of Natural History, this multi-institution, international study was spearheaded by Yi Hu, PhD, while finishing a postdoc at Drexel, and Jon Sanders, PhD, a postdoc at UC San Diego.

The study was inspired by work Russell did with Carrie Moreau, PhD, and Naomi Pierce, PhD, in Pierce's lab more than a decade ago when they discovered that many ants with low-quality diets harbored specialized bacterial symbionts - likely to supplement their diets.

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