Laccase gene expression as a possible key adaptation for herbivorous niche expansion in the attine fungus-growing ants

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterResearch

Fungus garden enzyme activity is crucial for sustaining societies of attine ants. The evolutionary diversification of this clade has likely been influenced by enzymatic specialization in connection to changes in foraging niche (De Fine Licht, Schiøtt, Mueller & Boomsma, 2010, Evolution), particularly when the ancestral leaf-cutting ants shifted from a diet of mostly fresh but shed plant material to actively cutting leaves. However, the way in which leaf-cutting ants managed to overcome the chemical defences of leaves has remained poorly understood. Here we document that laccases may have played an important role in allowing the leaf-cutting ants to become generalist functional herbivores. Laccases are polyphenol oxidase enzymes (PPOs) that are best known for their ability to degrade lignin in saprophytic and wood-pathogenic fungi. We found that laccase activity was primarily expressed in newly constructed garden sections where secondary leaf compounds are most likely to hinder decomposition. A combination of genomic and transcriptional analyses showed that there are at least eight copies of putative laccase coding genes in a draft genome of the fungal symbiont Leucocoprinus gongylophorus and that these are differentially expressed. We hypothesize that fungus garden laccases originally had a lignin-degrading function in the fungi that the attine ants domesticated, consistent with the gardens of lower attine ants processing only dry plant substrate. Our results would then suggest that some of these laccases were co-opted for the derived function of neutralizing phenolic secondary defences in leaves. Selection for increased gene expression of fungal laccase genes in the ancestral leaf-cutting ant symbiont could thus have gradually increased the ant’s capacity to process a higher proportion of fresh leaves in their forage. We are currently investigating the molecular evolution and expression profiles of these multiple laccase genes.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2010
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Event16th Congress of international union for the study of social insects - Panum, Copenhagen, Denmark
Duration: 8 Aug 201014 Aug 2010
Conference number: 16


Conference16th Congress of international union for the study of social insects

ID: 119881971