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Last Days of a Great City?

Sidebar: Ant Antibiotics

Until recently, researchers believed that leaf-cutter ants kept a harmful form of mold from growing on their fungal gardens by meticulously cleaning the fungus. In 2006, however, University of Wisconsin-Madison bacteriologist Cameron Currie became the first researcher to find that the mold does, indeed, grow on the fungus.

It turns out that the ants produce an antifungal that controls the mold. By merely passing over the fungus, ants are able to keep the mold from taking over. The mold and the antifungal the ants produce evolve at the same time as part of a surprising symbiotic relationship.

The bacterium that produces the antifungal is known as Streptomyces. It grows on the ants’ exoskeletons and is used in many medicinal antibiotics for humans.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(4) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.