Emory University biologist Nicole Gerardo gives a tour of the complex world of fungus-growing ants.

EMORY (US)—Ants could teach us a thing or two about farming—and about the genetics underlying biodiversity. That’s why researchers at Emory University are tapping the latest DNA sequencing technology to study agricultural ant societies.

“This project is one of the first attempts to use genomics to understand a complex interacting system, rather than a single organism,” says Nicole Gerardo, assistant professor of biology at Emory and lead investigator of the project.

“If we can understand how these ants have evolved to process huge amounts of organic material over 50 million years, we might discover more efficient ways to process our own waste materials, produce bio-fuels, or improve our agricultural methods.”

Ants cut and transport leaves to nourish their food crops of fungi and some species can process as much as 15 percent of the leaves in a dense rain forest.

Gerardo is a recipient of the 10 Gigabase Grant Program for DNA sequencing and transcriptome analysis from Roche Applied Sciences. She put together a project to sequence both ant genomes and the genomes of the key bacteria and fungi associated with ant gardens. She selected two highly sophisticated ant species for sequencing, and one ancient, more primitive species.

Roche will sequence the DNA using its sequencing technology, which will provide 10 gigabases of data—an amount equivalent to three human genomes.

“We’re entering completely new territory,” says James Taylor, assistant professor of biology, mathematics, and computer science at Emory and a coinvestigator on the project.

“DNA sequencing technology is becoming faster and cheaper, but this transition is just happening. The amount of data that this grant is providing us will likely be easily obtainable within five years, but right now we’re among the first to explore coevolution from a genomics perspective.”

The grant will make available data that includes three areas of DNA sequencing: genomics, providing all of the base pairs of  DNA within an organism; transcriptomics, revealing which genes are being turned on during a given situation; and metagenomics, delineating which organisms are within a system.

Gerardo looks forward to analyzing the genetics underlying ant diversity. “We think that humans are so complex, but ants in these colonies have different sizes and muscle structures.

“The genetic basis for what makes a soldier ant different from a worker ant is an incredibly interesting question in biology.”

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Washington University in St. Louis contributed to the project.

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