At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in Madison, Wis., researchers are looking to leafcutter ants for new enzymatic processes that will further progress to commercialize cellulosic ethanol

Leafcutter ants, which are found in tropical climates and live in enormous colonies that can number in the millions, have evolved several features over time that make their particular cocktail of enzymes attractive to researchers.

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“Our lab is an evolution and ecology lab, and we’re very interested in natural systems that take advantage of lignocellulolytic biomass and use microbes to break down [cellulosic] feedstocks,” said Garret Suen, a post doctoral research fellow at the GLBRC. “If we go to a system that is specialized to produce exactly what it is we’re looking for, we may find something of use.”

Converting plant cell walls into simple sugars, the basic premise for cellulosic ethanol, is a major challenge for scientists. Leafcutter ants, which tend massive fungal gardens of their decaying byproducts, may present a worthwhile solution.

Before receiving a U.S. DOE grant, the GLBRC was already studying the symbiotic relationship between the ants and their fungal gardens. For more than 50 million years, the ants and the fungus have evolved to the degree that if the ants were to die, or are removed from the system, the fungus dies as well, and vice versa. “The fungus-growing ant system is obligate, and one of the most complex symbioses that’s described in nature,” Suen said.

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