Fungus Farming Ants with Pepijn Kooij
Lots of people have seen videos of leaf cutter ants, the lines of ants carrying leafs on their back to go back to their next, but very few people know what they are actually using those leafs for. Surprising to most, they are actually ant mushroom farmers. They chew up these leafs and grow mycelium off of it to eat. We sit down with world renowned leaf cutter ant expert, Pepijn Kooij to enter their world and learn more about this fungus ant symbiosis.
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0:11 Welcome, welcome to the mushroom revival podcast How's everyone doing? I'm your host Alex door if people don't know is if this is your first time listening. Welcome. This is a podcast dedicated to diving deep into the wonderful world of mushrooms and fungi, we bring on guests and experts from all around the globe to geek out with us and get super nerdy of all different types of topics. And this is a free show of total love. If you want to support us, you can go to mushroom revival.com. And if you want some functional mushroom goodies, we have a giveaway that we're doing in the bio, so sign up, totally free for your chance to win some some mushroom goodies. But other than that, we are super excited to bring on a world renowned expert on leaf cutter ants. So remind me again how to pronounce your name. It slipped my mind since we've been talking for a little bit before the show. 1:10 That's all right. My name is Ben coy. I'm originally from the Netherlands. I'm Dutch. I studied there at Boston University biology. I then moved to Copenhagen to do my PhD there on leaf cutting ants and especially on their fungi. After about five years, working there moved to London to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cuba, where I studied more and with a higher focus on fungi, actually, and recently like at startup and pandemics, etc. Actually, I moved to Brazil, where I continue my work. And next year I will start at the same laboratory here in Leo Clow. 1:57 In the state of Sao Paulo, I will start a new grant for five years of research on the sexuality of the fungus that is grown by ants. So I'm sorry, that is super cool. Yeah. To talk about this, I bet there's so many undescribed species there in Brazil and so much research that needs to be done it. I mean, there's so much biodiversity there. Unfortunately, it's being eradicated very, very quickly. And hopefully the change of presidents will help slow that down a bit. 2:27 But I was just telling you, you know, before we jumped on that I was am really excited to bring you on because I did my own research on leafcutter ants way back in the day, and like 2015 and Ecuador, and spent a few months studying them and just fell in love. I mean the coolest, one of the coolest symbiosis in nature of fungi and Amelia. And I think probably the most sustainable mushroom farmers or fungi farmers in the world. I think humans can learn a lot from them. And so yeah, I'm really excited to dive in I have a million questions. So for people that don't know, never heard of leafcutter ants or I met a lot of people who know leaf cutter ants, they've seen the lines of ants with the leaves on their back but have no idea their their relationship to fungi. So give a little elevator pitch of what they are what they're doing. 3:23 Sure. So the quarter ends are like their namesake there ends that cuts a lot a lot of leaps, which you can find from the southern parts of the United States all the way down to Argentina. You can see them walking around in those long lines of ants carrying these leaves, but they don't eat the leaves themselves. They bring that to their colony where they actually have a fungus growing where they put the leaves on top. And fungus will break down this leaf material for the ends and produce special food packages like swollen hyphae filled with nutrients for the ends themselves, which the ends then eat up. So they use the fungus like sort of intestines for themselves 4:16 to help them digest the plant material that it bring it. 4:20 And it's funny I was doing a little ketchup research before this interview. Just to refresh my memory and learn more before we dive in. I always refer to them as either leafcutter ants or atta ants. And maybe that was just the region that I was studying them but I learned that they're the ants belong to two genera. So it's Adam or my remix. Am I pronouncing that correctly? Almost correctly, and there's actually three nowadays three Okay, since 2020. They described some species of acromyrmex as a new gene 5:00 Thus, they have been elevated to a higher taxonomic level, called amo Emmerich's, which you can find here in Brazil, and I think the northern parts of, of Argentina as well. So we have our Memorex, acromyrmex and atta. 5:17 That's awesome. I saw this graph of all the different ants, and they differ really radically. I mean, some ants have huge, you know, like bulbs on their heads, some are, you know, all different colors and things like that. And what I read, and please correct me if this is outdated, but there's 47 majors, ant species that 5:39 are involved with with the are technically called leafcutter. Ants. Yeah, so date numbers that out of date. I guess that's more or less correct. I mean, taxonomy, in answer as well as in fungi is is a constant signs, right. So there is totally developments of describing new species, sometimes merging species into one species. 6:04 So this number is more or less the right number, they will probably change, you know, by the end of this conversation. That right, right. 6:15 Yes, there is there are recent studies that show that probably some of the other species that we have, we need to split up and several different species. 6:25 But the current data that we have is still inconclusive regarding that, genetically, they seem to be diverging. 6:36 But we still need to find like the actual morphological differences to definitely say like, these are really different species. So are they coming up? Yeah. And are they generally all kind of doing the same thing? Or the different genera or species? Are they doing radically different types of fungi farming or, you know, taking different species? Like, do they have any major differences and how they are farming the fungi, there are major differences. 7:09 But the most striking thing is, the very big similarity is that all the leafcutter ants all grow the same species of fungus. 7:19 However, what really changed? Yes, they all grow the same species of fungus, that's the most incredible thing. And the general thing they do is the same, they cut leaves, they bring it back, they grow the fungus on there, and they eat the fungus. So that's all the same. The big difference you can find between otter and what we previously called acromyrmex. So that's acromyrmex, together with amine mimics. 7:45 Otter has colonies of many, many 1000s up to millions of individuals. Whereas acromyrmex, they can go up to hundreds of 1000s, but they're already like smaller groups. Then the other big difference that you have there acromyrmex generally has 8:09 two sometimes three different worker castes. So castes are different shaped 8:19 work workers or groups of ants that have different tasks to perform. 8:26 When we go to atta 8:28 with some of these pieces, I don't think we even have been able to count the numbers of different castes because there are so many different ones like you said, some with very big heads, which are the soldiers in general they have 8:43 in attire you can find like these really big soldier ends that are like centimeter almost two centimeters long. And in the same colony, you will find ants that are just a few millimeters long, really small, that maintain things inside the garden or sometimes lift on the leafs to protect the other ends from parasite from parasitic flies that might detect the other ends. So those are really big differences. And then there's one interesting difference in colony foundation 9:19 where the attic Queen after meeting, she lands, she digs a hole and closes the hole the hole to the surface. And then she spits out she has the fungus bowl in our mouth she spits it out she started to grow it lays eggs on there. And then when the first workers come out, they will dig out and go foraging. 9:43 acromyrmex On the contrary, she will dig a hole the Queen after mating spit out again the fungus like the the Queen, but she leaves the hole open and she goes foraging herself 9:57 for the first period and bring Lee 10:00 He's back herself to feed the funds, which is much riskier, of course, because yeah, go fetch her out, there's a big risk of, first of all, being eaten yourself. And second, all for like invaders coming to steal your families. 10:17 So, the genus atta has evolved even further to really protect that first stage to make secure, 10:27 like the development of the colony. 10:30 I don't know what kind of ant it is, and I think it's an ant. But I think I saw this in some nature documentary, but there's a specific app that 10:41 one of the casts or whatever, I think maybe it's just one ant of the colony has this, this style of head, that they're all they do is they're like the door to the nest, and they basically use their head to just block the hole. Yes, like, that's their only function? Have you heard of that before? Yes, I have heard of that. Those are not fungus growing ends, okay. It's a completely different genus. But yes, there is a group of ends, there are several species that all have different shapes as well. So the whole entrance is different shapes as well, some are squares, others are circles. 11:20 They are soldiers. There are like, classified as soldiers, but they put their head in, in the, in the hole to block it off. It's in front of it. And before before this interview, I was doing some research and kind of the lifecycle of 11:39 typical leafcutter ants, and this might change, but it was talking about how, at a certain point, there's kind of this like frenzy in the sky that they called 11:54 not to flight, if that sounds familiar, and basically, like, there's just a big orgy in the sky, the the females get impregnated, and then each female starts their own colony from that point. And they, what I was reading is that there's about a 2.5% chance of survival for each of the females. And that might be maybe more accurate for the species that don't block the whole and, you know, the queen goes out and forges, but I was just curious. 12:29 When does this event happen? Does it happen when, you know, a colony is already established, and the Queen dies, and so all the rest of the brood and, and the ants of the colony are like Alright, we gotta make a bunch of others. Like what what triggers that event. 12:49 So most of that is depending on rain, 12:55 and age of the colony. 12:58 There's also a difference between acromyrmex and atta. acromyrmex is able to produce sexuals already in the first year. 13:07 But at normally needs a certain size to grow out, to be able to produce those sexuals. And that normally takes around five years. When you grow a colony. In captivity, you tend to keep them small. So normally, inside captivity, acromyrmex will form the sexuals but I'm not here actually in the lab here in Rio cloudlet to Nesby. We have two gigantic colonies. 13:42 It's almost a room filled literally, with with a colony. 13:48 And they do produce sexuals. So it really depends on the size of the colony for Alta if they are able to produce those. When do they fly out? Go ahead. Wait, are you saying you have like an indoor ant farm? Yes. How? How does that work? How do they do you let them forage and then they just come back inside or do you feed them? How does that work? Um, so it depends on what the purpose is that we have with the colonies. We had many colonies and when I was in Copenhagen and we have a lot over here as well. Most of them are maintained in small boxes, where we have the fungus we have the queen and lots of workers 14:33 and we have generally a foraging arena where we put leafs for them that they will cut up and they will bring that back to their fungus 14:43 most like a glass box so you can see the little yes that they make cool 14:50 glass or perspex 14:54 and when it's a more open area, so these this really big one, they are 15:00 are like in big glass, 15:03 like pots, where we keep the fungus in. 15:08 But it's so big that we cannot contain that in a small small box. So I have many of those glass pots in a in a wooden rack. And that's in a in a very big box that only has like glass walls. And they we put on the wall, we put a substance on the floor, 15:26 which is making the surface even more smooth. Because even though glass for us seems really smooth, and can just walk up a glass, right. But if we put that substance flew on on there, it gets too slippery for them, so they won't be able to climb out of the boxes. 15:47 And so you you wrote at least one paper on termites cultivating fungi? Are they the only other species of or type of insect that that farms fungi? 16:02 Well, that we know. Well, that depends where you put your definition of farming. Okay. 16:09 We know other insects that grow fungus, for example, fungus growing beetles that are in the United States, for example, they tend to become a very big problem. Because they destroy, like large parts of forests. 16:26 In many cases, of course, they have their natural ranges as well. So it doesn't have to be a problem. But sometimes it is. 16:35 And these beetles, they they bring, genuinely they bring some fungus on also specific parts in their body. They dig a hole in, in the tree, and they lay their eggs there and they leave the fungus behind and the larvae they will eat the fungus that will start growing inside the roots. Oh, yeah, totally. Yeah. And I've heard this with 17:04 I think bees as well. Yes. Yeah. Interesting. So I guess so that's already considered farming? 17:12 Well, yeah, in a way, but it's not as maintained Imray close relationship as the ants and termites the ants and termites seem to be more integrated with the fungus then the others. 17:27 Bees is a very interesting study that started here in Brazil, actually, 17:33 where the larvae seem to need the fungus growing in their cells in order to get the right amino acids if they don't get that they don't develop into bees. 17:45 Or like not very healthy bees. Yeah, so they seem to be very important. And the final example that I know, but I don't know much of is the Syriacs wasp. There is a root wasps that you can find in Africa. 18:01 They also seem to use a fungus. 18:04 Like when they penetrate a wood to lay their eggs. 18:11 That also starts growing a fungus and can become a problem as well for for humans. But, of course, like I'm always very careful with saying pests, because it's a discussion whether something should be called the pest or not. Yeah, absolutely, for sure. And you're saying not too long ago that there's only is this right, there's only been one species of fungi, that's been documented. Out of all the different types of leafcutter ants, they only cultivate one species of fungi. Yes. Yes. Well, that's my my personal opinion there. So there's some discussion regarding this. There are some studies that say that they might actually be growing two species. 18:58 My personal research, I don't see that that signal in there. 19:04 But that's the thing we signs right. We need to really show and discuss that with each other. What is what? 19:13 But I do have to say like, aside from leaf cutting ends, there's like related ends that we call like, altogether, we call them fungus growing ends, and they will grow other species of fungi as well. Oh, okay. Say is it using different things other than leaves to cultivate it or? Yes, actually. Interesting. Cool. So in a broader term, we can divide the fungus growing ends in about five different groups where leaf cutting ants are the most famous ones. And then we have a group that is closely related to that. We often refer to the domesticated agricultural ends or higher ed tine ants. 19:59 They grow 20:00 All several different species. We don't know yet how many Exactly. They also haven't been described yet those fungi. So that's one of my dreams to get that done. 20:11 Well, the next five years, it seems seems like you're in the right place. Who knows, who knows, I would love that. 20:19 But they bring aside from leaves, they also bring like dried material or 20:26 like pre digested plant material as well like from from insects, faeces, for example, or flowers and 20:35 somewhat more easy, digestible things. And then there's a very big group that we call a basal atteinte ends, which we can divide in three subgroups, but they all bring like an leaf, not leaves, but flower nectar, 20:54 that insect faeces, dead plant material, things that you can just collect everywhere, and those ants tend to be quite small as well. 21:04 And the three groups that we can define in there is the ones that grow a fungus similar to the ones from leaf cutting ants, but it's a different genus probably. So either they grow leuco Garrick is or Luca coprinus. 21:21 Then there is a group that grows that type of fungus, but in yeast form, 21:28 which is very, which is very interesting. There is not much research done on that group. And well maybe in my next five years, I might be able to do something with that. Because as soon as you put that yeast on a petri dish and start growing it out, at some point it makes a switch and starts growing as mycelium again. 21:47 Oh, interesting. And the final group is one particular genus of ants, they made a switch to a completely different family to Lacey which is Coral mushrooms. And interesting, cool. And there they have actually described two different species of fungus, which are miracle tiarella is the genus and then the species name is available Horta and nudie Horta. Because one of them creates a sort of zeal of mycelium around the fungus garden and the other one does not. So a veiled garden and naked garden. 22:28 Do you know by any chance if the leuco Agaricus is what is it gone? glia forests for us? Ganga lafer is Whoa, that's a crazy name. I love that. Do you know if that's edible for humans? I tried to look it up and I couldn't find anything on it. I don't know. It's it's definitely not 22:51 poisonous. So 22:54 you could definitely give it a try. 22:57 If you take it from the garden, you first. 23:04 Now you got five years of important research. Yeah. 23:08 On your last day, it takes from the garden, oh, there is a big chance you will have some of the ends the largely 23:16 old plant material that is in there. So whatever plans they bring in. 23:21 So that's a big mixture. But one thing that does happen every once so often, in especially here it seems to happen in increasing frequency is they start to grow mushrooms, which is like contradictory to what should happen with a colony. 23:42 So maybe those are tasty. But often when I pick them for my research, there's already a lots of maggots in there from flies and beetles and things. So not very, very tasty, I think at that moment. Yeah. And I read that over 10s, maybe hundreds of millions of years, but I think it's 1010s of millions of years. I didn't write down the exact timeline, but 24:09 that this mushroom over time the ants fully domesticated it. So it is it no longer produces spores, and it can only be produced via the ants. Is that true? Or how does that work? It's a bit more complicated 24:27 as it always is. Yeah, exactly. But this is exactly the topic for my upcoming research. I love it fascinated by this by this question of sexuality. 24:40 My theory is that asexuality is necessary for the stability of the mutualism. 24:48 So I will have to try and figure out to see if this is really the case or not. And how this fungus is maintained. Practically asexual 24:59 because Jen 25:00 Normally, they don't grow mushrooms. Normally, they don't rise only when the colony is out of balance, it seems the fungus is trying to escape. 25:10 When it does grow a mushroom, within no time, you will find the ants cutting away the lamella. Right to the gills of the founders where we have the spores here. They really try to stop that as soon as possible. 25:28 Because they don't like that. You have to why? Why? So you have to realize these ends normally the Queen brings a piece of fungus in her mouth to the next generation. 25:42 So for distribution, it's not necessary. Even more so they cultivated this fungus in such a way that it's most optimal for them. Right? If you think they don't want new genetics, they're like we got a strain that's that works for us. It's been working for millions of years like, exactly don't mutate at all. Yeah, you're crazy. However, if you do this continuously, 26:09 what science will predict is you build up mutations in your genetics. Yeah, which get worse and worse and worse. So this particular founders of the leaf cutting ants found another solution for that. It has become polyploid. So it has multiple different genomes within its its its mycelium. So if one, if one 26:33 gene in one of the genomes gets corrupted, then there's the other genomes that they can take over that role with a clean gene. 26:44 Whoa, 26:46 yes, I wish I understood that more. But okay, so I went on your website, and I saw on the top of the page, just I didn't read the paper, but it sounds like you're, you probably talked about this in that paper. But you're talking about how I'm 27:05 totally drawing a blank on the word. But genetic analysis, basically, like DNA barcoding is, is not entirely accurate. Is that one of the reasons? Like if you were to take a sample of different parts of the mycelium, would you get different results of the back? 27:24 Yes, that might be that might be? 27:28 That might be because there's those different genomes? 27:32 For example, if we go to plants, 27:36 do you like strawberries? 27:38 I just had, yeah, I just had strawberries like 40 minutes ago. 27:43 My guess is that the strawberry was quite big, right? Like, like an inch or something. Yeah. So that is very domesticated. Yes, that's not that's not how it is in nature. 27:56 What happens is that we've been cultivating strawberries in such a way that they have become polyploid, as well. So we humans, and most other animals are what we call diploid, we have the genome of our mother and the genome of Assad. Right. 28:15 And we, those, those get mixed in our body, and then it gets chosen which gene is being used in whatever moment in time. 28:27 With the strawberries that are domesticated, it has become polyploid, which means there's more than two. So basically, it has more parents somehow. 28:40 And, okay, as a result, the fruit has become bigger. 28:45 And in some cases, even sweeter taste here. 28:50 There's, in plants, there's many examples of plants that we eat as humans, that we somehow have created a pole deployed, because they become bigger, we have more food from there, etc. With these leaf cutting ends, it seems to be a similar pathway 29:12 for the ants themselves, for the ants themselves, so they are free, they created this fungus that is polyploid, which has become much much bigger. So it can grow much bigger, the colonies of the ants are much, much bigger. 29:28 Because if we go to the basil atteinte ends that I mentioned before, those are colonies of 1020, sometimes 100 individuals, 29:38 and that fungus is practically deployed. God so so just like to parents, 29:48 genetics with Bondi is a bit more complicated because it doesn't work in any other organism like it works in fungi. But still, like we can make this similar like 30:00 analogy with plants that are pulled deployed and domesticated. Yeah, thanks. Thanks for that analogy moving towards the ant side of things. I'm curious after kind of reading the lifecycle of the ants, it seems like they're all kind of meeting within the colony. 30:18 Right? Oh, no, they okay. 30:21 There are some there are some NPCs that do that, but not 30:26 now, they made during this nuptial flight, as you mentioned before, so many kind of female in other colonies. Yeah. So So okay, somehow, there are some pheromones released is what people think that triggers this flight in many colonies in the area. So they will all fly. Males and females that will meet in the air, and the female will mate with one sometimes a couple of males 31:01 will lend. The males will die, because that's their only job is to mate. Wow, then die. 31:09 That's like wasps to write. Or that's their singer. Yeah. Or maybe both. It's not your singer. It's not their singer. But with with bees, wasps, and ants, men praying mantis is kind of, 31:25 in a way some spiders as well. Wow, interesting. Yes, you can you can even see that, by their morphology of their heads. 31:36 Males of ants have very small heads, because they don't really have that many brains. 31:44 Going out with a bang, yes, exactly. They don't 31:49 need to do is is made. And that's it. The females they have much bigger head because they need all this capacity to build the colony to maintain the colony, etc. So that you can always identify end males and females easily. Like by the size of their heads. 32:13 Cool says this is one of the reasons why it's funny. And it's one of the reasons why many entry searchers were question marking and men. It's like, what why? The real and yeah, female? 32:26 Yeah, no, it's so funny. Like, we have this kind of like anthropocentric view of the world. And if you really look at 32:36 all of biology in life, I mean, it really turns kind of the patriarchal society that we know as humans, like, right on his head. It's not, not all humans, all, not all societies throughout time had been patriarchal. There's some metrical societies still today. But it's like it's wild to to see this in ants. And it's brutal. And it's funny. It's like, yeah, it's so wild, how nature works, and all the different different combinations and things that arise. So interesting. 33:11 What else can we talk about? There's so many things that I I, there's so many things I want to talk about, what what areas should we move towards next? 33:22 I do want to I do want to say we were talking about how some some of the fungus growing ants, you're saying that they use flowers to bring in, when, when we were doing research in Ecuador, we had to do like time lapses of the different lines going into the nest because we're trying to track 33:42 the weight of how many leaves go into the nest per hour per day, per per year. And we noticed something really funny is that some of the ants would carry flowers, but they would always be stopped at the front of the nest and like whoever was the door checker would be like, Hey, dude, come on, and they would throw the flowers to the side. And like by the end of the day, you would see this whole mound of flowers like at the outside of the door. Is that like are they just I was was curious about that? Are they just picking whatever and they made a mistake? Or is there any intentionality behind that? Have you noticed that before? 34:25 Not in this particular clear case, like you described, but I know it does happen. There is some research out there 34:35 by 34:38 a group in Germany and a group in Panama as well. 34:46 It there is some 34:49 classification of what is good and what is not. 34:54 For example, if you the group in Germany, they did a study where they 35:00 I gave a choice to the ends of leaf discs, where one, 35:06 one group of leaf this was normal. And the other one, they had treated with fungicides, 35:14 about the first 24 hours, they were taken in the same rate. 35:19 But after 24 hours, they only went for the one that was normal. 35:24 So it seems that the fungus is giving a signal for like, Hey, I don't I don't like this one, please, please take that away. And that might have been the case with your flowers, for example, maybe these were sprayed flowers, or these were flowers that were effected with another fungus or something. 35:47 I don't know if you are familiar with endophytic fungi. 35:51 But the group in in Panama, they they had done a study where they looked at the amount of endophytes in the leafs. And it seems that ants don't like if there is a high load of endophytes in leaves, they'd rather go to a plant that has a lower amount. They also did this with a choice experiment. And this might be the reason why sometimes you see these leafcutter ants, they walk their trail, they pass a tree, they don't eat anything from that they pass the next three of the same species, they walk for 50 meters, to the same species of tree, just a different individual, and they completely defoliate that one, but they don't actually ours. And this might be the reason maybe caused by these this load of endophytes within the leafs. Because most likely these endophytes will form a sort of competition 36:51 against the fungus of the ends, I mean, many end of fights have been shown to 36:58 defend against herbivores. So lots of plants would like to have no fights 37:04 to help defend against any herbivores that might be out there. And these ants are and herbivores. So you know, it's it's this might be well, the case as well, for your flowers. Like, there might have been something in there that the song is dated like, and maybe the ones at the door the ends were already knowing that this is the one that we don't want. Yeah. But if there's still ads coming back from that spot, because that might still take some time. Yeah, yeah, they will have to learn. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I thought it was interesting. I was reading that they prefer forests that are 37:49 what's the term basically, like have been disturbed by humans and are regrowing, so they're not as luscious. And therefore the plants are. They haven't developed as many 38:03 chemical compounds, 38:06 and probably endophytes, as well. And they just don't have any, as many chemical defenses in the plants. 38:16 And I read a story that when the conquistadores first came to South America, 38:23 they saw you know, the Amazon forest rainforest, and wow, it's so luscious are so many plants. This would make there's something in the soil that basically makes plants grow like crazy. Let's chop everything down and grow like bananas or whatever they were growing. And then the leaf cutter ants went crazy and just defoliated everything. And it was a disaster. And they didn't know that, you know, the soil was just incredibly thin in the Amazon rainforest and is terrible for crop for most crops. And so they were just being destroyed by these leafcutter ants. And so it became this thing of like, we need to kill any leafcutter ant we find and like destroyed the nest and the in the queens and it's almost kind of like keeping the systems in balance of, you know, keeping keeping 39:18 biodiversity in check. Another thing I was reading is that 39:25 I don't know if this is true with all leaf cutter ants, but they make like a, like a compost pile outside of their nest. And if it's infected with this parasitic fungi that takes over and so farmers found out that if they want to deter the leafcutter ants from defoliating their plants that they planted they'll they'll actually pick up the compost pile and sprinkle it around their plants. 39:51 This correct 39:54 but it only works temporarily. 39:58 Yeah, so they will have to reapply 40:00 Light, it's over and over. So it works. But it doesn't work that well. 40:05 That's why there's still lots of studies going on, like how to avoid leave cutting ends entering, 40:12 like plantations and things like that. Yeah. But like the first part of your story there. I don't know if that history really is true, but I can imagine. 40:25 Because that's the thing with plantations, we put actually something very digestible, very tasty, you know, and it's easy grab for those ends, they will love to go to a plantation because it's all like what we do as human often monocultures. It's all the same thing. We did it in such a way points for them. Yes, yes. Big things. 40:54 So, you know, like, often, it's just an easy, easy grip for them. And they will they will go for the I mean, that's yeah, that's nature. 41:06 You just wrote a paper with the student about the effects of climate change, and how that affects what mushrooms are popping up? Can you? Can you talk about that a little bit? Yes, that's correct. We, we don't have like, strict evidence that climate change is really changing it. But we found a correlation between the increasing temperature in this region over here. And also the more extreme 41:37 seasons that we have, we have now a much more dry season than it was before in the winter, and a much wetter wet season in the summer. 41:48 So it's become more and more extreme that and the temperature is has gone up, like everywhere else in the world, but really, like we did the grass, and you can see like going up and up and up. 42:00 And we've been trying to correlate that with 42:04 the times that mushrooms had been found on leaf cutting in colonies. And then particular one species that in the winter, they grow their fungus in the soil. And in the winter, 42:18 in the winter in the soil, and in the summer, they bring it up into the trees. 42:23 They build their nest in the crowd of the trees, it's absolutely amazing to see that well. 42:29 But 42:31 more and more times, we found records of mushrooms growing. So one of the students here that I worked with, he started recording, like the amount of times that we found that. And then we went through literature all the way to the 1900s by Muller, who describe the very first mushroom of these ends, and try to see like, how many times can we find in the records, these mushrooms, and in the past there were not that many. And it's interesting because these mushrooms are big, and they're pretty, they are like wine colored on top. 43:12 So really, I believe if if there were more people would have recorded that because they are beautiful to see. Right? So it seems that in the past was only few and in recent years that there's really been an increase in his mushrooms. And we also have this increase in temperature and this extremity between dry and wet climate. 43:36 Okay, with with this is just correlation. But the parents seems clear that with this climate change, it seems that there's more and more of these mushrooms popping up on these leaf cutting colonies. 43:50 And then the question is, how will this affect these ends? We don't know exactly. We don't know if this really is a bad thing. But they keep attacking the mushrooms because they don't want that right. 44:02 So we don't know the extent of like the problems that this will bring, but it seems to be a problem. 44:11 So 44:13 there seems to be something happening with climate change that will probably have a negative effect on these ends. But we will we would have to do like more like experimental research as well to see like how does this really affect and and how detrimental this is for the ends? But something is happening for sure. 44:41 Interesting it's so far I never knew that they would attack the mushroom that's so interesting like at an another fungi that they have to attack and counter in keeping control is Escobar opsis I think is how you pronounce it as correct. It's like what 45:00 What a parasitic Is it a yeast? What is it? It's not a yeast, you know, it's a it's a fungus. 45:08 We over here at least that are left with Tori, we're starting to change our mind a bit that it's not really a parasite but more an antagonistic fungus that will wait their chance to, to to take advantage of the system. 45:27 calling this a parasite is might be more like a philosophical question. Yeah. Software discussion? Yeah, what point of view? Yeah. For the ants point of view? 45:42 Well, the thing with the parasite is that it would have to be there almost the whole time and, and really have true effect and really have a detrimental effect on the colony survival. 45:58 And we don't really have clear evidence for that yet. There have been studies in the past that looked at this, but they looked at only very young colonies that are vulnerable in itself. 46:12 So should we really call this parasitism? Or is it just antagonistic, more like a disease? Because not all diseases are parasites? Right? Yeah. Yeah. So 46:26 it's a it's a bit of a discussion but yes, these ends do have this fungus and not only this, there's several other fungi antagonistic fungi that might affect the colony growth. 46:42 This particular genus ask of opposite has recently by friend and colleague here that's been split up in three general Aska boxes simple you're Rosa. And now I have to dig through the heart in my mind luteal Mises 46:59 there is another genius that is related ESCO fazzio It is that are all 47:07 related to each other and seem to have like this this antagonistic role. 47:14 But there is other fungi as well like one called sincere, sincere philosopher that is also seem to be causing quite a lot of damage, in first instance, to these colonies. 47:29 And they're not attacking the ants, they're just taking over the pile of leaves that they're creating that leaf mash, right, are they that are that it's as well not the ants certainly not the ants 47:44 as corpses has been shown that it actually attacks the fungus. So they have microscopic evidence that it's a breaking open the cell walls off the fungus itself and penetrates there so it's, it's the fungus like wow, like the nutrients that are in the fungus itself. So not not the leafs interesting. But I guess with any of these fungi, there's a slightly different way of attacking this. There's also fungi that attack the ends, 48:18 like very famous genera of Bavaria metarhizium that are even used in pest control. In some cases, 48:29 they can be a problem for the answer as well. 48:33 But it seems that leaf cutting ends in general have constructed themselves with their fingers and 48:43 and some bacteria that they grow in such a way that they form these social immunity. 48:50 They are able to cure somehow like to gather all of them against various different diseases that are out there. 49:03 I have been a mushroom grower for many years on a commercial level and it's so funny seeing the similarities because for for mushroom farmers out there 49:14 we have to deal primarily with something called TRICARE Derma which is in the soil it's everywhere. It's great for soil health and you know, 49:23 if you're if you're growing vegetables tegaderm is amazing. But for mushroom farming, it's the worst. And it it is like honestly it it's it feels like it's the equivalent of Escobar opsis For for humans for for human mushroom farming is like Trikha Derma and we're constantly having to sterilize and clean and you know if we get contamination with Trikha Derma we have a compost pile up back and we keep it away from our from our farm, which is exactly what the ants do they have you know if something gets contaminated with ESCO 50:00 boxes, they take it out, and they like dispose of it out back. So it's so interesting the similarities between us and these ants. But which is cool, which I haven't seen any humans do in mushroom farming? Or if they do, they're keeping it on the download or if I'm just unaware of it, but 50:18 you are talking about they have these, this symbiosis with bacteria in their saliva and maybe urine. But 50:28 actually no mice tota, which apparently a ton of human antibiotics are derived from, do we know what exactly what compounds specifically are in this in the spirit that these bacteria are producing that 50:47 kind of protects against this? Opportunistic fungi? Esko of opsis 50:54 Short answer, not yet. Okay. To go back to what you were telling trek Derma is also one of those antagonistic fungi in the poll really, so also the ends of man, okay. 51:10 And they grow the bacteria on their cuticles on their body. 51:15 So no interesting not not internal. Interestingly, like acromyrmex, for example, if you pick up a worker, you can see just on their thorax, you can see they're like white breastplates. And that white is all the bacteria that are grow there. It's very beautiful to see that. I always thought that they were chewing it up and their saliva interesting. Oh, but aside from those bacteria, they have glands on their body metal plural glands, which is producing chemicals as well. 51:54 That helps defend against any pathogens that are there. They know more already about those. I'm not a big chemist myself. So I don't know the names of those. But you can find that if you do some searching. 52:12 And with the bacteria. I know there is a group in Norwich in England that are trying to figure out if they can use these antibiotic producing bacteria for human antibiotics. Because as we all know, like antibiotics is becoming a problem. Lots and lots of bacteria becoming resistant to these antibiotics. And 52:39 one of the main sources of antibiotics for us humans is the soil. 52:46 And they are all bacteria that produce these antibiotics that are very related to each other. So the antibiotics are all very similar to each other. 52:58 So what they are this group in Norwich is trying to do okay, we have this bacteria that is from a completely different group. And he is producing antibiotics. Like can we transform them in such a way that we can utilize them to bring us antibiotics for us? Because that would be a completely different line of antibiotics. For which probably there is not much resistance produced yet. 53:25 So I would advise you to have like, look up the group in orange because they do some really amazing work on that. 53:34 Totally Yeah. And for anyone listening, if anyone studies pharmacology, and is has any correlation to mushroom farming, I feel like you could be an overnight instant millionaire or billionaire, if you if you figure out how to like protect against trike, if you can make some sort of super serum that you could put, you know, similar to the what the leafcutter ants are doing and just, you know, protect your home. I mean, mushroom farming is a big industry if you can just create something based off these leafcutter ants to protect against trike. 54:11 Yeah, you'd have a lot of buyers pretty quickly. So while I would recommend look up the literature on those metal plural glands and see what chemicals Yeah, they have been producing that have shown to to have this antagonistic effect against antagonists. And start with that, see if you can synthesize that those chemicals and spray that on your fingers. Like maybe that works. Who knows. 54:40 So another kind of switching topics a little bit. Another thing I noticed, besides the flowers that I thought was really funny was 54:48 certain ants that carry big leaves. They'll have an another ant on top, riding on top. And someone told me that they're kind of like navigating because the ant on the bottom carrying them 55:00 Leave just can't see. 55:02 Is that true? No, it's not that but they do have a very important role. 55:08 These ends, they sometimes are parents parasitized by a forest flies. These are small lines that lay eggs in the ends. And they will like the larvae will eat the end from the inside and then fly out. 55:23 Which is a big problem, of course. Yeah, as 55:27 a parasite, you know? Yeah. But you don't want to have that in your colony. So what these ends developed is they sometimes have these little lands indeed, like hitchhiking on the leaf to protect them against these flies. That's protection. It's like a bodyguard. Have you heard of the tarantula hawk wasp? 55:52 So yes, huge. Yes. With big hind legs, right? Massive? Yeah. Yeah, it does the same or similar. It basically has this like, poison in it Stinger I think or maybe it bites it, I'm not sure. But it paralyzes a tarantula and injects the eggs inside of this paralyzed trench. So that's still alive. And the eggs of this wasp will hatch inside of the living trench and eat it from the inside out, which is so gnarly. We saw this actually, when we were in Ecuador, doing, you know some some observations on the leafcutter ant nests is that we had to just stop in place like are one of the people that were with that. Lived in Ecuador for many years. He was like, yeah, like if you hear a really loud buzzing, just stop and like crouch down and like don't move because apparently, they're I think they're like the second 56:56 most painful bite in all of the insects or something like that. I mean, they're and they're massive. And you can hear him from like a mile away. They're like really loud. And we saw it actually take down a tarantula and like, drag it away. 57:10 They're wild. Yeah, insects are wild. 57:14 Wild, I've seen those type of Wasp flying around, searching, but I've never saw them like attacking a tarantula. Unfortunately, I would love to see that. But similar similar way there is like, which is often used as a bio control mechanism as well. They have like these tiny wasps that lay eggs in caterpillars, and they will eat the cat from the inside out. 57:38 Other white little? Exactly. Yeah. Those are nuts. 57:44 So out of all the years that you've been doing this research, what would you say has been the hardest time? 57:52 It could be? You're still in it. Maybe a problem that you haven't figured out yet that's been eating away at you like a wasp parasite, or, you know, maybe it was one night, you know, you lost a bunch of data or you know, something. 58:10 Scientific scientifically speaking. 58:14 I guess there's not one particular time, there's many hard times. 58:20 Any scientists will recognize that there's always like, 58:24 some things that were ill will take on forever, or, 58:30 you know, things that don't work. 58:35 But the trick is to try and turn that around, you know, like to see, okay, it's not working. But why is it not working? Maybe Maybe it's not supposed to work? Well, that's also okay. 58:49 Often, a lot of people think that only a positive result is something you can publish. But that's, I disagree with that. Negative results are important too. If something doesn't work, publish it, because, you know, other people will otherwise try it as well and totally, and waste their time on the 59:12 less less scientific, hard time is just try and find funding. Unfortunately. 59:24 It's something that I i do have to say because especially nowadays, it's getting harder and harder. 59:33 With lots of people starting to disbelieve scientists, for whatever reason. 59:39 And it's unfortunate, because 59:43 we are important, I actually say 59:46 yeah, I might work on leaf cutting ants and doing very fundamental evolutionary research. But all the things that I figured out by be used and applied 59:59 in Agra 1:00:00 Culture, things like that. So 1:00:03 yeah. And you said you, you did get funding for the next five years? Yes. Are you ready to process? Congratulations. Thank you very much. I'm very thrilled about that. That's amazing to to continue this work and try and figure out what's going on with that asexuality that we talked about before. And apart from that, what what would you say has been the greatest moment in your research scientifically or personally, what however you want to answer? Maybe it's been, 1:00:35 I don't know, some longer term thing, or it's been some champagne popping moment that you discovered something new or something like that you got an award something? Well, actually obtaining this grant. I've been since finishing my PhD. I've been writing on this project to try and get funding for that. So that has been since 2014 2013. I've been working nice congrats. So that's awesome. After almost 10 years, I finally got this 1:01:04 big pot of money to do this research that I've been dreaming on for many years. Oh, yeah. So yeah, that's amazing. Yeah, congrats. Thank you so much. Thanks so much. That has been one of the biggest moments. Another small moment is a few months ago, or about a year ago, I did an interview with with the BBC, like for their magazine I have 1:01:31 because they wanted an expert on leaf cutting ants. 1:01:35 In light of the new series of David Attenborough. So I was interviewed. 1:01:41 I saw that on your website. That's awesome. Yes. So I was being interviewed regarding a TV program that is like one of my biggest heroes. 1:01:51 So that was so amazing. I am. Yeah. 1:01:56 He's like, once in a lifetime type of individual. Yes. You know, yeah, we're, we're so lucky to have him and he has inspired me so much in terms of just connecting with nature, and just the way he he talks and inspires people to just connect with the world and biodiversity I think is so so important at a time where people are so disconnected. And so that's awesome. Congrats on the interviewer. And, and that's super cool, that you got the funding finally, about to do this amazing research. My final question, and you might have already answered it sounds like you're kind of doing it right now is that if you had unlimited funding, and an unlimited team unlimited resources, equipment, you know, access to the top of the line, everything, unlimited time as well. What research would you like to do or like to be like to see done in this field? 1:03:00 Well, then I would bring the field a bit broader. Yeah, one thing that I've been starting to do since my work at Kew Gardens, is one thing that we didn't know, I still don't know exactly is what the free living ancestral species of fungus is of the fungus of ants. Because in my opinion, 1:03:23 the only way to understand this, this how this evolved is by understanding what the origin is. 1:03:31 If we know what the origin is, then we can try to figure out okay, so what are the differences of why did they choose this one, there's not another one. So and it's in the family of a Gary Casey. And I bet you know Dr. Gary Casey, because there's all these lovely edible and Garrick is that are in there. But not only that, there's puffballs in there. 1:03:55 There is stocked puffballs in there, it's amazing the amount of morphology. So 1:04:02 if I had unlimited sources, I would say let's try and collect as many of those try and identify all these pieces possible. And get all the genomes and see where does this morphology, diversity come from? Why do we have these differences? And why do we have ants growing this particular fungus and not the next one? 1:04:25 I think that would be absolutely fantastic. But at least I can start like make a start with this. No. Absolutely. And if people are interested to follow your research and what you're doing, I know you have a website which will link at the bottom where can people follow your I don't know if you're on social media or anything. Yes, I am. I have an Instagram. 1:04:48 Which I think is my name as well. 1:04:51 If I remembered as well, I have I just wader for now. I still have Twitter for now. Yeah, see how that goes. We'll see how that develops. 1:05:00 Same lead 1:05:01 is also just my name. 1:05:04 You can find me everywhere there. 1:05:08 I think that's the best place to go. If you want to know more like real research articles. ResearchGate is a big source where you can find me with all my papers on there. 1:05:20 But for social media, go go for Instagram and Twitter. And I haven't been that active on Instagram lately regarding this. 1:05:30 But I will be in the future with the new brand. Twitter I posts regularly scientific stuff. 1:05:39 And it just, it is wild. I I've met so many scientists that are really big on Twitter. Yeah, it seems like such a big platform for scientists, which is cool. 1:05:51 I never made a Twitter account ever. 1:05:55 anymore. Yeah, I know. I feel like maybe it's a good thing. Yeah, I don't know. We have one. All right. I think as someone made us, for the brand mushroom revival, someone made an account on Twitter. And I think we used it for like a month or something. And then we just stopped. But that's like, my only experience with Twitter. 1:06:19 But you're like talking to people like you? And they're like, Yeah, I'm super active on Twitter, posting all my scientific research and like, oh, man, and maybe I should just make one just to show you guys. But I don't know. Now. The main the main reason that I started with that, which is about 10 years ago, maybe more 1:06:39 was to follow conferences. And 1:06:45 also, when I'm in a conference, I post tweets out there, like if people allowed it, sometimes they say like, please don't tweet about this. 1:06:54 But it's very handy. Like, if I can't go to a particular Congress conference, I can follow on Twitter, like what's going on there, like what people like the new fresh things that are out there that I haven't been published yet. 1:07:07 So that's, that's why it's great. And one other social media type of thing that you can find me is I naturalist, and like anyone who loves nature and goes out walking, I recommend, like, get that and record everything you see, because it's a source for us. For example, that study that I told you about regarding climate change. We got some of the data we got from there. 1:07:35 Like people recording the mushroom and put that on I naturalist, which is like a great source for us to see like, Ah, here wasn't record at, like 2012 or whatever. 1:07:49 It's been mostly birds from my side. 1:07:53 But whenever I see mushrooms or other things, I'll try to put that on there as well. And people have valleys like identifying like, scientists and non scientists, experts that often know more about mushrooms than I do. 1:08:09 Help with I naturalist he's great. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So you can find me there as well. I Brazil is on my list I have I have never been. 1:08:21 It's funny for South America, I've only really traveled on the West Coast. 1:08:28 Columbia all the way down to Chile. 1:08:31 But I've never gone to the east coast at all. And so that's on my list. And I will definitely reach out when I go I have showtune supercilium friends that always go back and they are trying to drag me along for their next trip. And I have friends there as well that 1:08:49 Yeah, I mean, there's just so much of the Amazon rainforest there that is amazing, and tons of philosophy there that you could wild pick everywhere. 1:09:00 And yeah, it just seems like an amazing place. And if I ever find when I find some more leafcutter ants, I know who to reach out to. I'll take lots of pictures and and thanks for coming on. I really appreciate it. This has been super fun. I've learned a ton during this conversation and just the research before and helps shape my understanding of this symbiosis, which is really awesome. 1:09:26 Thank you. I feel like we could talk for many more hours about all of this and related things. And indeed, whenever you're in the neighborhood and I'm still in in the same laboratory, I can show you the huge colony that we have. Hell yeah. Which will be amazing to see for you. Yeah, that sounds fine. And then I'll have to bring you on in five years. 1:09:48 Yes, and then you ever you have a little bit yeah, you have to eat a little bit of a mushroom as the the final part of the episode. 1:09:57 Oh, we'll be up for the challenge. I'll be out 1:10:00 furniture. I do can say I did ETS, 1:10:05 they they think they are a delicacy in many Latin American countries, 1:10:11 the fried Queens but also the front ends themselves. And they're quite tasty. I can tell you that. What, what kind of tasted they have 1:10:20 kind of nutty 1:10:23 and some taste of chitin which is not the nicest flavor, but the naughty part is very nice. And if you have a particular type of eggs from here, it's very lemony, but very small, like termites. Yeah, I never I never ate termites. I can't I can't say that super lemony. They're really not very filling but it's just that the taste or at least specifically the type of termites that Ivy but 1:10:53 yeah, it's They're tiny. I mean, you're super tiny, and you just stick a stick in the in the mound, and then you you know, nice, like, lick it up, and it's yeah, it's like, super lemony. It's crazy how lemony it is. 1:11:05 That's wild. Yeah, I'll have to. 1:11:08 I feel bad now knowing so much about them to eat them, but I feel like I have to eat at least one in my lifetime. Well, when you come by, we can raise this for you. Perfect. Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on. And thanks for everyone, for tuning in and tuning in for another episode, wherever you're tuning in from around the world. And yeah, please you know, check out his work and keep you know, if you learn something cool from this episode, tell a friend tell a coworker tell a family member, keep the mycelial web flowing and keep telling people about how cool mushrooms and fungi and life is in general. If you want to check out our website, mushroom revival.com. We have a bunch of functional mushroom products there from gummies capsules, tinctures powders, and if you want to win any for free, we have a giveaway and we'll link 1:12:05 the giveaway link in the bio you can sign up for free and have a chance to win some mushroom goodies. But apart from that, sending everyone a big fungal hug and much love and may the Force be with you Transcribed by https://otter.ai