Certain fungi work for ants.
"We're working on fungi that are inoculated into leaf litter by New World tropical ants," said McLaughlin. "These fungi break down leaves, then the ants eat the fungi and gain the nutrients the fungi have extracted from the leaves."
In his lab, McLaughlin keeps cultures of the same fungi in petri dishes. In that environment, the fungi often produce fruiting bodies--spore-forming structures that tend to form when the fungus experiences low nutrient levels or other stress. To scientists, fruiting bodies are desirable because they can be used to identify fungi. Under the ants' care, however, the fungi rarely form fruiting bodies, possibly because the ants keep the fungi well supplied with nutrients, McLaughlin said. This practice may be the ants' way of keeping their crops from "going to seed."
Many fungi look alike, and sorting them out can have economic and culinary ramifications, said Bryn Dentinger and Peter Avis, graduate students in McLaughlin's lab. For instance, the delectable and pricey porcini mushroom has a lookalike and "tastealike" that grows in Minnesota. But neither mushroom can be cultivated. To cultivate such mushrooms, one would have to determine growing conditions for both species and, more difficult, find a way to tell whic
Contact: Deane Morrison
University of Minnesota