Biomimicry FTW: Leaf-Eating Ants, Fungi and Bacteria Can Teach Us How to Make Better Biofuels

leaf cutter ants photo

Photo: Wikipedia, Public domain
Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho! Breaking Down Dead Leaves!
Leaf-cutter ants, fungi and bacteria are playing as a team when it comes to extracting the most energy possible out of dead leaves, and scientists think that by studying this 50-million years old "symbiotic bioreactor" they can figure out how to make biofuels more effectively. But they can't just study the ants, or the fungi, or the bacteria in isolation; they have to look at the whole thing together and sequence the whole community genome (17 different organisms). Read on to find out how these three groups work together.
leaf cutter ants carrying leaves photo

Photo: Public domain
Here's the amazing process:

In the wild, armies of leaf cutter ants fan out across the rainforest floor searching for leaves. Using their powerful jaws, they cut out sections of leaves and then carry them back to their underground nests, where they feed the leaves to carefully tended gardens of fungi.

The fungi secrete enzymes onto the leaves that break down various molecules, leaving behind sugar that the ants use as food.

Once the fungi have broken down all they can, the ants remove the leaf pieces from the fungal garden, carry them to the surface and discard them in heaps around the nest. Bacteria continue to break down the leftover leaves, so the waste doesn't overwhelm the ant colony.

This new approach of looking not only at individual species but at how they are interlinked and work together is very promising. We must stop seeing ecosystems as only individuals, but rather as interconnections. I'm sure we can learn a lot from those, not only how to do certain things better, but also what not to do if we want to protect nature. Our actions too often have unintended consequences because we don't understand that if we push on the first domino, a lot more will fall...

Via Discovery News
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