Most of my recent and current research has had a strong microbial component Mycocepurus smithii is a fungus-gardening ant that exhibits asexual reproduction. Like all fungus growing ants, this species cultivates fungus as its sole food source. I have examined the coevolutionary history of these ants and their diverse assemblage of symbionts (Kellner et al 2013b). Unlike other fungus farming ants which usually grow only one fungus species, my findings show that M. smithii grows a wide variety of different fungal lineages. Using culture-independent and culture-dependent methods I analyzed the types of bacteria associated with these different fungal strains and the ants lineages (Kellner et al. 2015, Kellner et al. 2018) to determine bacterial communities and diversity. The most surprising finding was the occurrence of Lactobacillus, which has been to date not found in any other fungus-farming ant, but is well known from other Hymenopterans, especially bees (McFrederick, et al., 2013). Future work will involve investigating the ecological importance of Lactobacillus presence in the fungus gardens as a potential antibacterial agent in protection against parasites.
Mycocepurus smithii ants keep their fungus garden healthy after infection with Escovopsis, a coevolved parasitic fungus, through hygienic behavior and chemical defense in A. B) decreased worker number results in a loss of chemical defense (the garden stays healthy but infection emerges from the trash pile). C) Further reduction of worker number results in Escovopsis overpowering the garden (Kellner, et al., 2018).