No pigs or chickens yet. But the vast farms where leaf-cutter ants raise their fungal crops may harbor a crew of previously overlooked farmhands — nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
At least eight species of leaf-cutter ants typically live with bacteria that capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form that living organisms can use, says microbial ecologist Adrián Pinto-Tomás of the University of Costa Rica in San José. He and his colleagues propose that these bacterial helpers might explain how the ants feed up to 8 million workers in a single colony just by harvesting bits of nitrogen-poor leaves and letting a fungus grow on them.
Neither the fungus nor the ants, nor any other multicellular organisms, can use the atmosphere’s abundant nitrogen directly. Pinto-Tomás and his colleagues tracked the path of nitrogen through ant nests and tested inhabitants for genes active in capturing the nutrient from the air. Live-in bacteria, particularly in the genus Klebsiella, could provide an estimated 45 to 60 percent of the nitrogen in the ants’ food, the researchers report in the Nov. 20 Science.