Magazine article Science News

Ancient Fungal Farmers

Magazine article Science News

Ancient Fungal Farmers

Article excerpt

Long before ancient humans picked up a hoe, ants cultivated food. About 50 million years ago, these six-legged agriculturists began developing a strong, mutually beneficial partnership, or symbiosis, with a species of fungus. Today, many of the 200 species of attine ants still farm that fungus, even though the ants have spread north to New Jersey and south to Argentina, says Ulrich G. Mueller, an evolutionary ecologist at Cornell University.

The ants pass the fungus along by allowing new queen ants to pack some starter fungi in their mouths. They use this package to clone a new crop in their own nests. Worker ants quickly expand the crop to a room-size "field" that provides essential nourishment for larvae, if not for all the ants, Mueller says. The fungus does not propagate on its own.

Though entomologists have known about these ant farmers since 1874, biologists are only now figuring out the history of this symbiosis. At Cornell, Ted R. Schultz and Rudolf Meier examined and categorized 51 attine ant species. Then the Cornell group and Ignacio H. Chapela of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md., used genetic techniques to work out the taxonomic relationships of 19 fungi from ant nests and 16 samples of free-living fungi from the wild.

The 200 ant species share a common fungus-farming ancestor, Chapela and his Cornell collaborators report in the Dec. 9 SCIENCE.

The genealogy of the fungi is not as clear. In many, but not all, cases, the original fungus evolved into new species in parallel with their ant farmers. …

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