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Symbiotic fungus does not depend on fungus-farming ants for reproduction, researchers say

mushroom--deep inside an ant nest are extremely rare. So the scientists, in collaboration with Dr. Patrick Abbot at Vanderbilt University, read the signatures of sexual reproduction in the fungal genes. They studied fungi cultivated by leaf-cutting ants, well known fungus farmers that bring pieces of leaves back to their nest to use as a growth medium for their fungi.

Genetic analysis revealed that the fungi are still using the cellular machinery necessary for sexual reproduction, which would have been lost or changed had the fungi become completely dependent on asexual, clonal reproduction through their ant farmers.

Studying the fungus gardens of an introduced population of leaf-cutting ants on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the scientists also found that the fungal genes have been recombining, a sign they are reproducing with one another.

"The fungi are not completely domesticated and under the strict control of the ants," said Mueller. "Instead, the fungi occasionally have a life of their own, dispersing independently of the ants and exchanging genes with other ant-cultivated fungi."

Mikheyev, Mueller and Abbot also compared leaf-cutter ants and their fungal crops from Cuba to populations of ants and fungi from Central and South America. Though the Cuban ants have been isolated from mainland populations for many years, genetic analysis showed their fungal crops have been exchanging genes with mainland fungi populations.

"The fungi are able to cross geographical boundaries too great for the ants, intermingling genes between mainland and Cuban populations, possibly through airborne spores," said Mikheyev.


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Contact: Ulrich Mueller
umueller@mail.utexas.edu
512-232-5775
University of Texas at Austin
27-Jun-2006


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