A 15-year study of leaf-cutter ants and their relatives across North and South America has found that their nests are susceptible to infection by a diverse group of specialized fungal parasites. The discovery, by biologists from Rice University, São Paulo State University in Rio Claro, Brazil, and the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), could provide new clues for controlling the agricultural and garden pests. The study, which was published online on September 30, 2015 in the open –access journal Royal Society Open Science, is one of the largest ever undertaken of parasites associated with leaf-cutter ants. The study began in 2000 and involved collecting, cataloging, and analyzing samples of parasitic fungi called Escovopsis from dozens of colonies of leaf-cutter ants and their relatives in Brazil, Argentina, Panama, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Trinidad and Tobago. Researchers identified 61 new strains of the fungi, which attack the ants' food source. The article is titled “Shared Escovopsis Parasites Between Leaf-Cutting and Non-Leaf-Cutting Ants in the Higher Attine Fungus-Growing Ant Symbiosis.” According to Wikipedia, different species of leaf-cutter ants farm different species of fungus as mutualistic partners, but all of the fungi the ants use are members of the Lepiotaceae family. The ants actively cultivate their fungus, feeding it with freshly cut plant material and keeping it free from pests and molds. This mutualistic relationship is further augmented by another symbiotic partner, a bacterium that grows on the ants and secretes chemicals; essentially, the ants use portable antimicrobials. Leaf-cutter ants are sensitive enough to adapt to the fungi's reaction to different plant material, apparently detecting chemical signals from the fungus.
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