Nav: Home

Ant farmers boost plant nutrition

June 24, 2019

Humans began cultivating crops about 12,000 years ago. Ants have been at it rather longer. Leafcutter ants, the best-known insect farmers, belong to a lineage of insects that have been running fungus farms based on chopped-up vegetable matter for over 50 million years. The ant farming of flowering plants, however, started more recently, about 3 million years ago in the Fiji Islands.

Research, led by Dr Guillaume Chomicki from the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, has demonstrated that millions of years of ant agriculture has remodelled plant physiology. Farming ants deposit nitrogen-rich faeces directly inside plants, which has led to the evolution of these ultra-absorptive plant structures. This means that ant-derived nutrients are actively targeted on the hyper-absorptive sites, rather than deposited as a result of by-products. This new understanding may offer important clues in our fight for food security.

Dr Chomicki, the lead author of the study, says: 'The speed at which plants can take up nitrogen is a key limitation to plant growth rate. Most plants, including our crops, take up nitrogen from the soil and are thus not naturally exposed to very high nitrogen concentrations. Here, for millions of years, ants have deposited nitrogen-rich faeces directly inside the plants.' Ongoing work aims to decipher the genetic basis of the ultra-absorptive plant structures discovered in this study, which may ultimately be transferred to our crops and thereby increase their nitrogen uptake rate.

It's a unique kind of farming where the ants grow not only their food, but also their home: the plants provide ready-made cavities in which the ants nest. This relationship is essential for both parties: the ants have lost the nest-building ability that most other tropical tree-dwelling ants have, and the plants - which are epiphytes (plants growing on the surface of trees) - rely on ants for nutrients and defence.

To test whether the ant-farmed plants' nutrition has itself changed, Chomicki tracked the deposition of nutrients by ants inside these Fiji-island plants. In the farmed plant species, specialized ants exclusively defecate on hyper-absorptive warts on the walls inside the plant. In closely-related non-farmed plant species living in the same Fijian rainforests, the ants do not show this farming behaviour. This research shows that similar hyper-absorptive warts have evolved repeatedly in plants colonized by farming ants.

The research published today in New Phytologist, reveals that because insect farmers supply their crops with nutrients, they have the potential to modify crop nutrition, and in the case of ants, this has led to evolutionary changes in both partners; the ants and the plants.

Professor Renner, from the University of Munich, and senior author of the study, said: 'Domestication of plants by ants has led to a >2-fold increase in uptake of ant-derived nitrogen, and this tight nutrient recycling is a key asset for the epiphytes to live in soilless canopies.'

This supports the notion that millions of years of ant agriculture have remodelled plant physiology, shifting from ant-derived nutrients as by-products to active and targeted fertilization on hyper-absorptive sites. Much like our emerging 'precision agriculture' where computer-controlled devices and drones are used to target nutrients to the spots in the field where they are most needed, these ants have evolved a special kind of precision farming. They target nutrients to specific tissues in the plants that are hyper-absorptive.
-end-
For more information and interview requests please contact the University of Oxford press office at ruth.abrahams@admin.ox.ac.uk or 01865 280730.

The paper will be available to read after the embargo lifts here: https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nph.15855

Notes to editors

The University of Oxford has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the third year running, and at the heart of this success is its ground-breaking research and innovation. The university is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Their work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of its research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

University of Oxford

Related Nutrition Articles:

Leaders call for 'Moonshot' on nutrition research
Leading nutrition and food policy experts outline a bold case for strengthening federal nutrition research in a live interactive session as part of NUTRITION 2020 LIVE ONLINE, a virtual conference hosted by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN).
Featured research from NUTRITION 2020 LIVE ONLINE
Press materials are now available for NUTRITION 2020 LIVE ONLINE, a dynamic virtual event showcasing new research findings and timely discussions on food and nutrition.
Diet, nutrition have profound effects on gut microbiome
A new literature review from scientists at George Washington University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology suggests that nutrition and diet have a profound impact on the microbial composition of the gut.
Are women getting adequate nutrition during preconception and pregnancy?
In a Maternal & Child Nutrition analysis of published studies on the dietary habits of women who were trying to conceive or were pregnant, most studies indicated that women do not meet nutritional recommendations for vegetable, cereal grain, or folate intake.
Supermarkets and child nutrition in Africa
Hunger and undernutrition are widespread problems in Africa. At the same time, overweight, obesity, and related chronic diseases are also on the rise.
Horse nutrition: Prebiotics do more harm than good
Prebiotics are only able to help stabilise the intestinal flora of horses to a limited degree.
New study measures how much of corals' nutrition comes from hunting
When it comes to feeding, corals have a few tricks up their sleeve.
Nutrition programs alone are not enough to support healthy brain development
Caregiving programs are five times more effective than nutrition programs in supporting smarter, not just taller, children in low- and middle-income countries.
Ant farmers boost plant nutrition
Research, led by Dr. Guillaume Chomicki from the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, has demonstrated that millions of years of ant agriculture has remodeled plant physiology.
Featured research findings from Nutrition 2019
Press materials are now available for Nutrition 2019, the flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, to be held June 8-11, 2019 at the Baltimore Convention Center.
More Nutrition News and Nutrition Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#569 Facing Fear
What do you fear? I mean really fear? Well, ok, maybe right now that's tough. We're living in a new age and definition of fear. But what do we do about it? Eva Holland has faced her fears, including trauma and phobia. She lived to tell the tale and write a book: "Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Uncounted
First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.