Molecules hint at evolutionary history of natural antibiotics

Researchers peering into the complex ecosystems of leafcutter ants in Panama and Costa Rica have discovered three previously unknown molecules produced by bacteria living on the ants’ bodies.

Although the molecules are almost identical, the structures of the bacterial genes that produce them are vastly different. The findings, reported in PNAS, suggest an interesting way bacteria in various ant colonies exchange and evolve new molecules with new functions—possibly including natural antibiotics and antifungals.

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“We’ve found at least two snapshots of the evolutionary history of this molecule, which is very difficult to do,” said Antonio Ruzzini, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School and co-first author of the study.

“It’s stunning to find near-identical chemistry being produced by ant-associated bacteria that are so geographically separated,” added HMS postdoctoral researcher Clarissa Sit, the other first author of the study. “It made us curious about how the bacteria produce these molecules and whether they use the same strategies to do so.”