A Fungal Garden’s Microbial Makeup

Cultivating food is an innovation that has produced some of the most successful ecological strategies on the planet.

The Science

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) are of interest to bioenergy researchers because they farm gardens made up of communities of bacteria and fungi that break down plant biomass. Beetles and termites have similar symbiotic relationships with microbial communities in the gardens they cultivate for food, suggesting that different insect hosts have exploited microbes more than once as a strategy for breaking down biomass. In a recent collaboration, scientists from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and DOE Joint Genome Institute used genomic techniques to analyze the composition of microbial communities in these fungal gardens. They found that regardless of their geographic location, these gardens have a similar microbial makeup. The high whole-genome similarity across distantly related insect hosts that reside thousands of miles apart shows that these bacteria are an important and underappreciated feature of diverse, fungus-growing insects. Because of the similarities in the agricultural lifestyles of these insects, this is an example of convergence between both the life histories of the host insects and their symbiotic microbiota. These results may point the way to both bacteria and fungi that are predisposed to having genes for enzymes and pathways useful for breaking down biomass to potential bioenergy feedstock sources.

BER Program Manager

Shing Kwok

U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Biological Systems Science Division
[email protected]


Aylward, F. O., G. Suen, P. H. W. Biedermann, A. S. Adams, J. J. Scott, S. A. Malfatti, T. Glavina del Rio, S. G. Tringe, M. Poulsen, K. F. Raffa, K. D. Klepzig, and C. R. Curriea. 2014. “Convergent Bacterial Microbiotas in the Fungal Agricultural Systems of Insects,” mBio 5(6), e02077-14. DOI: 10.1128/mBio.02077-14.