U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Ant Farmers Provide New Clues for the Breakdown of Plant Biomass
Published: September 27, 2010
Posted: November 03, 2010

Leaf cutter ants rely on complex farms of bacteria and fungi in their underground nests to deconstruct harvested plant biomass and convert it to food. The communities of microbes responsible for rapid turnover of massive amounts of cellulosic material in tropical ecosystems are poorly understood and could serve as a source of novel microbes and enzymes for industrial biomass conversion. Researchers at the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI) have completed the first microbial community metagenome sequencing project for leaf cutter ant nests. The results reveal a unique community with distinct microbial subpopulations responsible for degrading material of varying degrees of recalcitrance in different parts of the nest. The metagenome library contained gene signatures for a broad range enzymes involved in deconstruction of cellulose, hemicellulose, and other plant polymers. The team has isolated two of the more dominant bacteria found in the ant nests and demonstrated cellulose degradation capabilities. These results provide a new understanding of a highly evolved natural system for biomass deconstruction that could inform development of new consolidated biomass processing approaches.

Reference: Suen, G. et al. 2010. "An Insect Herbivore Microbiome with High Plant Biomass Degrading Capacity," PLoS Genetics. 6:e1001129

Contact: Joseph Graber, SC-23.2, (301) 903-1239
Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Genomic Analysis and Systems Biology
  • Research Area: Microbes and Communities
  • Research Area: DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI)
  • Research Area: Sustainable Biofuels and Bioproducts
  • Research Area: DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRC)

Division: SC-23.2 Biological Systems Science Division, BER


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