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Neandertal of ant farmers grows modern food

Discovery provides new look at the co-evolution of symbiotic organisms

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2:15pm, March 24, 2015
Farming ants with fungus

SURPRISING PARTNERS Ants with ancient farming techniques somehow manage to grow and feed on a surprisingly modern and picky fungus (white mass in the background).

A living relict of an ancient species of farmer ants has startled biologists by cultivating a fancy, modern food crop that didn’t arise until more than 30 million years after the ants themselves. The surprising discovery is providing a new look at how symbiotic species evolve.

“It’s like a lost tribe of Neandertals growing a GMO crop,” says Ted Schultz of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Ant colonies that grow their own specialty fungus for food can die when coaxed into trying to farm unfamiliar strains, lab tests show. Yet Apterostigma megacephala — the oldest knownspecies of farmer ant with only the simplest agricultural techniques — has somehow switched to grow a kind of fungus that’s been around for just 2 million to 8 million years, Schultz and his colleagues report in the May American Naturalist. Scientists thought this highly

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