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Farmer Ants Fertilize Their Gardens With Bacteria

(editor's note - this is an update to a story we featured earlier at http://www.microbeworld.org/index.php?option=com_jlibrary&view=article&id=1971)

Thanks to their vast underground fungus farms, leafcutter ants are one of Earth’s most successful species — and one secret of their agricultural success is bacteria, which the ants use like fertilizer.

By farming with microbes that pull nitrogen from the air, the ants thrive in nitrogen-poor rain forest soil. Researchers say their bug-harnessing tricks might point people toward better ways of turning plants to fuel, or boosting our own crop yields.

“The reason we’re able to produce such massive crops is by the massive fertilization of nitrogen in our fields,” said University of Wisconsin bacteriologist Cameron Currie, co-author of a paper published Thursday in Science. “Ants supplement their crops through symbiotic associations with bacteria.”

A star of rain forest documentaries, leafcutter ants are one of about 250 ant species that subsist on farmed fungus. Most of these species live in colonies of a few thousand individuals, with tiny garden plots.

Leafcutter colonies have millions of members, with leaf-fed farms yielding more than a ton of fungus every year. Some scientists estimate they account for a full four-fifths of all living, nonplant rain forest matter.

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