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Chomicki, Guillaume and Renner, Susanne S. (2019): Farming by ants remodels nutrient uptake in epiphytes. In: New Phytologist, Vol. 223, No. 4: pp. 2011-2023

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True agriculture - defined by habitual planting, cultivation, harvesting and dependence of a farmer on a crop - is known from fungi farmed by ants, termites or beetles, and plants farmed by humans or ants. Because farmers supply their crops with nutrients, they have the potential to modify crop nutrition over evolutionary time. Here we test this hypothesis in ant/plant farming symbioses. We used field experiments, phylogenetic-comparative analyses and computed-tomography scanning to investigate how the evolution of farming by ants has impacted the nutrition of locally coexisting species in the epiphytic genus Squamellaria (Rubiaceae). Using isotope-labelled mineral and organic nitrogen, we show that specialised ants actively and exclusively fertilise hyperabsorptive warts on the inner walls of plant-formed structures (domatia) where they nest, sharply contrasting with nitrogen provisioning by ants in nonfarming generalist symbioses. Similar hyperabsorptive warts have evolved repeatedly in lineages colonised by farming ants. Our study supports the idea that millions of years of ant agriculture have remodelled plant physiology, shifting from ant-derived nutrients as by-products to active and targeted fertilisation on hyperabsorptive sites. The increased efficiency of ant-derived nutrient provisioning appears to stem from a combination of farming ant behaviour and plant 'crop' traits.

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