As the gardeners and farmers among us tend to their summer crops, a thriving community of gardeners is busy beneath our feet. As rushed and single-minded as ants seem to be, some of them are maintaining gardens of fungi at this very moment. Bioresearchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison are taking note of these miniature horticulturalists and how their curious habits might aid humans in their search for sustainable energy sources.
Working in a garden engages man in a symbiotic relationship with plants. We toil away to ensure our leafy friends have enough food, water, space, and safety. In return, they please our senses of sight, smell, and often taste. Leaf-cutter ants cultivate share a cyclical symbiotic relationship with the fungus L. gongylophorous that starts when the ants bring leaves to the fungus. The fungus breaks down the leaves into sugars that it can digest, and then it produces fruiting bodies full of nutrients that are valuable to the ants. In this way, both organisms get access to a source of food they wouldn’t be able to get on their own.
(Leafcutter ants bring leaves to the fungi (left) and then carry the fruiting bodies back (right). Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bandwagonman, Brian Gratwicke, and Alex Wild, respectively.)
Interesting as this relationship is, it doesn’t immediately benefit the realm of biotechnology. What’s of interest to bioresearchers is how L. gongylophorous handles the leaves that are brought to it. To break down the strong wall of cellulose, the fungus uses a mixture of its own enzymes and the help of some types of bacteria (which, of course, is a nested symbiotic relationship!) that deconstruct plant polymers. The process is very similar to the goals of researchers like professor Garret Suen, who investigate ways to break down cellulosic commodities like corn stalks and grasses and turn them into biofuel. By studying the way L. gongylophorous turns cellulose into energy, Suen plans to learn how humans can do the same process on a larger scale.
"It's difficult to think that we can actually find a process that improves on nature, so it probably makes sense to learn from it," he says in a University of Wisconsin article. He and his colleagues are also looking into certain colonies of termites and beetles, which cultivate their own fungi as well. The idea is to take cues from nature on how to break down excess biomass, which our society produces a good quantity of, and convert it into power again.
This study was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and funds from Roche Applied Science's 10 Gigabase Grant Program. To read more about funding for the University of Wisconsin, Madison and its studies, click on the link below:
Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. will be visiting the University of Wisconsin for two of our BioResearch Product Faire™ events this fall. We will be holding our Madison University Research Park BioResearch Product Faire™ on September 4th, 2013, and Madison BioResearch Product Faire™ the next day, September 5th, 2013. To reserve a space at one of these Wisconsin events, use the buttons below; if you’re interested in attending a show closer to home, please look at our 2013 schedule.