Acacia Trees Turn Ants Into Addicts to Use Them for Protection

It was long thought that the relationship between ants and the acacia trees in Central America was simply a mutualistic one- the ants get food in the form of nectar and in exchange the trees get protection from harmful weeds and hungry animals. But a study led by Martin Heil of Cinvestav Unidad Irapuato in Mexico has discovered that the trees actually force the ants into servitude by chemically addicting them to the nectar and simultaneously making it impossible for the ants to digest other sugar sources.

Here’s how it works. Most of what ants consume is high in the sugar sucrose, but an enzyme known as invertase is necessary to break this sugar down during digestion. Heil was able to show in 2005 that all of the worker ants on the acacia tree lacked this key enzyme. Heil discovered that this was as a result of an enzyme released by the tree, known as chitinase, which completely blocks the invertase enzyme in the ants.

To make up for this lack of invertase in the ants, the acacia produces this digestive enzyme in its nectar. So, the ants who have lost their internal invertase can only digest nectar from the acacia tree because it is the only available food source with invertase in it. Pretty clever trees I’d say.

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