The Secret Lives of Leaf-Cutter Ants

For February 5, 2020 
               Please share this invitation with your ants & uncles.
Hi WN@TL Fans,
Ants and bees both live in colonies, but bees fly mostly in solo sorties.  So it’s the ants on the ground that many a kid has found to be their introduction to the social graces. One morning, there in the kid’s backyard, a colony is on the move, a braided stream of ant humanity coursing down a sidewalk, some carrying eggs in their maws and jaws, heading to some New Diggings off in the grass or under a rock.  Why do they move?  How do they decide where to go? Do they caucus or do they congress?
Ants have class, perhaps even caste, with different sizes and specific jobs, workers and warriors and drones and queens.  Some ants herd aphids and some ants farm fungi.  Some ants have internal symbiants, microbial fellow-travelers, some doing good and some doing harm, for digestion or for infection.  But the symbionts have their own worries—as in Mr. Nash’s world, where little bugs have littler bugs, the ant’s pathogens have their own diseases.
This week (February 5Cameron Curie of Bacteriology returns to Wednesday Nite @ The Lab to report on the complex relationships between leaf-cutter ants and the microbes they support on & within their bodies and within their colonies.  Here’s how he describes his talk, entitled  “The Secret Lives of Leaf-Cutter Ants.”
“Since the origin of life on Earth ~3.5 billion years ago, microscopic organisms have played key roles in global biogeochemical processes and have evolved into the most abundant and diverse life forms on the planet. The importance of microbes is further exemplified by their crucial role as symbionts with plants and animals, as every living organism unavoidably lives in intimate association with microbes.

“In the Currie Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison our research explores the diversity, ecology, and evolution of symbiotic associations and microbial symbionts. Our favorite symbiosis is associated with the well-known and charismatic leaf-cutter ants. Leaf-cutters can form massive colonies, composed of millions of workers, using fresh leaves as substrate to farm fungus for food. This amazing ant-fungus association is a textbook example of interspecies cooperation and was first described in the 19th Century.

“Starting with my own doctoral work, we have spent the last two decades exploring the complex associations that occur within this symbiosis, including discovering and describing the presence of two other integral symbionts: i) parasitic fungi that exploit the ants’ fungus garden, and ii) mutualistic bacteria that produce antibiotics that inhibit the parasitic fungus. In my talk, I will present on our latest research exploring the coevolution, microbial and chemical ecology, and just simply surprising biology of this complex symbiosis.”

Extra Good Stuff: After the Q&A, Cameron will be offering a tour of the newly-renovated Microbial Place at the Microbial Science Building (1550 Linden Drive), with a focus on the leaf-cutter ant colony.  We’ll walk over to MSB from Genetics Biotech Center—about a 300 yard walk.
About the Speaker:
Cameron Currie is the Ira L. Baldwin Professor of Bacteriology at UW-Madison.  He earned a BS in Biological Sciences from the University of Alberta, an MS in Entomology from UA, and his PhD in Botany from the University of Toronto.



Next week (February 12) we welcome a special guest, Professor Maria Orive of the Univeristy of Kansas.  She is the keynote speaker for UW’s 2020 Darwin Days and will be speaking on “Replicating Viruses and Adapting Clones:  Making Sense of Biology with Math.”

Description: There are two major ways that we can use mathematical models to make sense of biology: as a tool to explain what we do see, and as a framework for predicting what we might see.
The first of these allows specific tests of hypotheses, and the second allows us to generate hypotheses. Using examples from viral infection within a human host and from organismal adaptation under environmental change, we consider how building dynamical mathematical models let us describe biological systems that change over time.
These models can help us understand why the number of viral particles within the host might decrease initially even without application of a drug therapy, or to predict whether organisms that can reproduce in multiple ways, such as many plants and marine invertebrates, will have an easier or harder time adapting to a sudden environmental change.
Using mathematical models allows us to address questions where it is really important to have clear answers or good hypotheses: in studies of disease, and in studies of environmental change and the invasion of new species.
Full schedule of Darwin Days at
Note:  arrive early on February 12 for saccharomycetic refreshments and to chat with evolution researchers about their research posters.
Hope to see you this week at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!
Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension

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