Scientists show molecular basis for ants acting as 'bodyguards' for plants

Though you might not think of ants as formidable bodyguards, some do an impressive job protecting plants from enemies. Now, scientists at the University of Toronto (U of T) have determined what makes some better bodyguards than others.

Examing the relationship between the Amazon rainforest plant Cordia nodosa in Peru and the Amazonian ant Allomerus octoarticulatus, they found the degree to which the ants express two genes significantly impacts the amount of protection they provide to their hosts.

The ant-plant relationship is an example of a phenomenon in nature known as mutualism, in which two seemingly disparate species interact in a manner that is mutually beneficial for both. Two common examples of mutualisms are pollination and seed dispersal, both of which involve plants attracting animals that perform an important service by offering them a food reward. The features of mutualisms, however, vary across animals and species.

"Around 400 species of tropical plants have evolved specialized structures called domatia to house ant colonies that defend them, mainly against herbivorous insects," said Megan Frederickson, associate professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at U of T and senior author of a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. "Because there are many, many arboreal ants in rainforests, tropical trees are often completely covered in ants."

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