Leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) collect and carry leaves to the colony, where they are used to build and nourish the colony’s fungus garden, which appears as a white mat in the image. The fungus provides the ants with a stable supply of essential amino acids and proteins. Over the 50-million-year evolutionary history of this agricultural relationship, the fungus-growing ants have diversified into more than 200 species. Some of these ant species even grow antibiotic-producing bacteria on their bodies in order to fight off microbial pathogens that attack the fungus, keeping the garden healthy. The different bacteria associated with the many species of leaf-cutter ants are now providing a rich source of novel antibiotics in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi in humans.
Image courtesy of Cameron Currie PhD, Lily Khadempour and Don Parsons, Dept. Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.