Ants, Their Agriculture and Antibiotics

Cameron R. Currie

Professor of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin - Madison


Videography by Nerine & Robert Clemenzi, Edited by Nerine Clemenzi
Copyright © Philosophical Society of Washington.  All rights reserved.

Abstract:

The formation of beneficial symbiotic associations can be a form of evolutionary innovation: by establishing a symbiosis with another organism, a host rapidly gains access to unique 'goods' and/or 'services' previously unavailable to them. The view of symbiosis as evolutionary innovation is supported by the abundance and diversity of plants and animals that have formed symbiotic associations with specific lineages of microbes with specialized metabolic capabilities.

The quadripartite association between fungus-growing ants, their fungal cultivars, mutualistic bacteria that feed on the fungi, and specialized garden pathogens that grow in specialized pores on the ants provides a remarkable example of symbiosis as evolutionary innovation: the use by the ants of the antibiotic-producing actinomycetes bacteria to suppress pathogens that infect their fungus gardens.

The example has implications beyond its intrinsic interest to ecologists. Given that microbial pathogens likely cause virulent diseases in all plants and animals, and are an important agent of natural selection, this type of association may be widespread and provide fertile opportunities to discover new antibiotic and anti-fungal agents.

The talk will discuss recent findings on the actinomycetous symbionts of fungus-growing ants indicating that, over the more than 45 million years the mutualism has been evolving, selection has resulted in the diversification of the antibiotics produced by the actinomycetes. The talk will discuss further work indicating that mutualism between actinomycetes and insects is widespread and likely represents a vast and largely untapped source for the discovery of novel natural products, such as anti-biotics and anti-fungal agents.

Cameron Currie

About the Author:

Cameron Currie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University of Alberta and his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. He spent three years as a faculty member in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas before moving to Wisconsin. His research is highly interdisciplinary, spanning the fields of microbiology, genomics, ecology, and evolutionary biology. His lab studies the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of symbiotic associations, with a particular focus on the interactions that occur between insects and microbes. His research, including extensive work with the charismatic leaf-cutter ants, has potential applications in fields as diverse as bioenergy development and drug discovery. He has received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and a Government of Canada National Sciences and Engineering Research Council Doctoral Dissertation Prize. He has published more than 80 papers and been awarded many grants and other support.


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