Evolutionary transitions in enzyme activity of ant fungus gardens.
The degradation of live plant biomass in fungus gardens of leaf-cutting ants is poorly characterised but fundamental for understanding the mutual advantages and efficiency of this obligate nutritional symbiosis. Controversies about the extent to which the garden-symbiont Leucocoprinus gongylophorus degrades cellulose have hampered our understanding of the selection forces that induced large scale herbivory and of the ensuing ecological footprint of these ants. Here we use a recently established technique, based on polysaccharide microarrays probed with antibodies and carbohydrate binding modules, to map the occurrence of cell wall polymers in consecutive sections of the fungus garden of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior. We show that pectin, xyloglucan and some xylan epitopes are degraded, whereas more highly substituted xylan and cellulose epitopes remain as residuals in the waste material that the ants remove from their fungus garden. These results demonstrate that biomass entering leaf-cutting ant fungus gardens is only partially utilized and explain why disproportionally large amounts of plant material are needed to sustain colony growth. They also explain why substantial communities of microbial and invertebrate symbionts have evolved associations with the dump material from leaf-cutting ant nests, to exploit decomposition niches that the ant garden-fungus does not utilize. Our approach thus provides detailed insight into the nutritional benefits and shortcomings associated with fungus-farming in ants.