1. Ecology
  2. Evolutionary Biology
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Proteomics reveals synergy between biomass degrading enzymes and inorganic Fenton chemistry in leaf-cutting ant colonies

  1. Morten Schiøtt  Is a corresponding author
  2. Jacobus J Boomsma
  1. University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Research Article
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Cite this article as: eLife 2021;10:e61816 doi: 10.7554/eLife.61816


The symbiotic partnership between leaf-cutting ants and fungal cultivars processes plant biomass via ant fecal fluid mixed with chewed plant substrate before fungal degradation. Here we present a full proteome of the fecal fluid of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants, showing that most proteins function as biomass degrading enzymes and that ca. 85% are produced by the fungus and ingested, but not digested, by the ants. Hydrogen peroxide producing oxidoreductases were remarkably common in the proteome, inspiring us to test a scenario in which hydrogen peroxide reacts with iron to form reactive oxygen radicals after which oxidized iron is reduced by other fecal-fluid enzymes. Our biochemical assays confirmed that these so-called Fenton reactions do indeed take place in special substrate pellets, presumably to degrade plant cell wall polymers. This implies that the symbiotic partnership manages a combination of oxidative and enzymatic biomass degradation, an achievement that surpasses current human bioconversion technology.

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Author details

  1. Morten Schiøtt

    Centre for Social Evolution, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-4309-8090
  2. Jacobus J Boomsma

    Centre for Social Evolution, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-3598-1609


Danmarks Grundforskningsfond (DNRF57)

  • Jacobus J Boomsma

H2020 European Research Council (Advanced Grant 323085)

  • Jacobus J Boomsma

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Dieter Ebert, University of Basel, Switzerland

Publication history

  1. Received: August 5, 2020
  2. Accepted: January 9, 2021
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: January 12, 2021 (version 1)


© 2021, Schiøtt & Boomsma

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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