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Proteomics Reveals Synergy Between Biomass Degrading Enzymes And Inorganic Fenton Chemistry In Leaf-cutting Ant Colonies

Morten Schiøtt, Jacobus J Boomsma

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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.