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J Comp Physiol B. 2002 Feb;172(2):169-76.

The role of the symbiotic fungus in the digestive metabolism of two species of fungus-growing ants.

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Institut de Recherche sur la Biologie de l'Insecte UMR CNRS 6035, Faculté des Sciences et Techniques, Parc de Grandmont, Tours, France.


Leaf-cutting ants live in an obligatory symbiosis with a fungus which they grow on fresh leaves harvested by workers. This study attempts to clarify the respective role of ants and fungus in the degradation of plant material, in order to highlight the evolutionary basis of this mutualistic association. The symbiotic system of two ant species, Acromyrmex subterraneus subterraneus and Acromyrmex crassispinus, was investigated. To identify the digestive carbohydrases, a total of 19 specific and synthetic plant material substrates were tested on workers from different castes (major and minor), larvae and fungus. Extracts of A. subterraneus and A. crassispinus workers showed high enzymatic activity particularly on starch, maltose, sucrose and alpha-1,4 glucoside. Larvae degraded starch, sucrose, maltose but also laminarin, and all the detected activities were higher than those found for workers. The symbiotic fungus of A. subterraneus was mostly active on laminarin, xylan and cellulose, while the symbiotic fungus of A. crassispinus was mostly active on laminarin, starch, maltose and sucrose. The enzymatic activities of ants and fungus belonging to the same symbiotic system tended not to overlap, suggesting that the association is highly evolved and of an ancient origin.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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