Hauling hunks of leaves on their backs, leaf-cutter ants are easy to recognize in the jungle. What is not so obvious is that they garden and pig out on plants, two behaviors that are helping scientists better understand drugs and biodiesel.
In Central and South America, the ants use razor-sharp jaws to cut leaves. They eat the pieces and also incorporate them into their nests in what scientists call a fungus garden maintained by as many as 10 million workers.
"This includes elaborate behaviors for tending their food crop. So, they actually groom it, and clean it, and prune it," bacteriologist Cameron Currie of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who did his doctoral research on the ants and now has a lab at the school, said to Science Nation.
Bacteria on the insects’ bodies produce antibodies that rub off on the fungus, helping to keep it healthy. “Over the years, these bacteria appear to have evolved new antibiotics to keep the gardens healthy. This co-evolution could help researchers create new antibiotics for humans,” according to the story.
Working with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), Currie’s lab is also looking into how the ants’ ability to digest plant material could help them create biodiesel, an alternative fuel source that could replace petroleum.
"We hope to both reduce society's dependence on fossil fuels and generate those fuels from a feedstock that isn't part of the food chain," said bacteriology professor Tim Donohue, director of GLBRC, in the piece. "We think biofuels have a clear position in replacing the fossil fuels that go into the automotive and aviation sector, and we hope that we'll be able to generate fuels that are efficient, cost effective, [and] equally important, sustainable, from an economic and environmental perspective."
The complex relationships between the individual ants in a colony and the colonies and their nests continue to yield information that could help people get healthy and use cleaner energy, as the bacteriologists are finding. Despite the huge leaf sections they carry, these ants haven’t bitten off more than they can chew, garden, or eat.