Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixation in the Fungus Gardens of Leaf-Cutter Ants

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Science  20 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5956, pp. 1120-1123
DOI: 10.1126/science.1173036

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Bacteria-mediated acquisition of atmospheric N2 serves as a critical source of nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems. Here we reveal that symbiotic nitrogen fixation facilitates the cultivation of specialized fungal crops by leaf-cutter ants. By using acetylene reduction and stable isotope experiments, we demonstrated that N2 fixation occurred in the fungus gardens of eight leaf-cutter ant species and, further, that this fixed nitrogen was incorporated into ant biomass. Symbiotic N2-fixing bacteria were consistently isolated from the fungus gardens of 80 leaf-cutter ant colonies collected in Argentina, Costa Rica, and Panama. The discovery of N2 fixation within the leaf-cutter ant−microbe symbiosis reveals a previously unrecognized nitrogen source in neotropical ecosystems.

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