Scientists have discovered a chemical that controls the interactions between a network of ants, fungi, and bacteria, according to a paper to be published online this week in Nature Chemical Biology. This report establishes the molecular basis for this small ecological system.
Fungus-growing ants farm a particular type of fungus for food, but they must protect their desired fungus from predators, such as other types of fungus. The ants rely on bacteria to produce antifungal agents that can specifically kill the predator fungus, but not the cultivated fungus. However, the molecular agents created by the bacteria were not known.
Jon Clardy and colleagues report the identification and characterization of dentigerumycin, a complex natural product that defines the three-species community. With this molecule in hand, scientists are poised for additional discoveries about how the compound is made, how it is used by the ants, and why it is toxic to some fungi but not others.