What Farming Ants Can Teach Us About Bioenergy

A leaf-cutter ant foraging trail. These ants can form foraging trails in the rainforest that are hundreds of meters long containing thousands of workers. (Image credit: Jarrod Scott, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

What new methods will allow us to create biofuel from plants? Garret Suen, a computational microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) in the Department of Bacteriology is trying to find out.  Suen is a post-doctoral researcher working in the lab of Cameron Currie and in January of 2011, he will be joining the faculty in the Department of Bacteriology and starting up his own lab and research program.  Suen grew up in Toronto (before moving to Calgary for college), and being from Canada, he thoroughly enjoys Wisconsin winters.  Suen’s current work at UW centers on how to convert cellulose found in plants into a fermentable sugar that can be used to make ethanol for fuel.  To learn more about this process, Suen is exploring fungus-growing ant symbiosis, the most conspicuous of which occurs with leaf-cutter ants.  Leaf-cutter ants are found throughout the neotropics, and they cut leaves to farm a fungus used for food.  The interest in this system is in finding novel microbes and enzymes that are efficient at degrading plant cell walls (cellulose), which is the first key step in the production of cellulosic ethanol.  The premise is that these ants and their microbes have been breaking down leaves into energy for millions of years, and so they likely have optimized this process much better than humans.  For example, a single leaf-cutter ant colony can contain over two million workers and harvest over 400 kg (dry weight) of leaves in a single year.  Suen’s work is featured in the NSF produced “Green Revolution” series “Biomass video” and the associated educational material that is also available.  Below, Suen answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions.

Name: Garret Suen Age: 32 Institution: University of Wisconsin-Madison Field of Study: Microbiology

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I kind of fell into this field by accident.  I’ve always been fascinated with social insects, particularly ants, but I never really thought of doing research on them.  I started off in biology thinking I might become a pharmacist or something, but that never really panned out, even though I ended up with a biology degree.  I then switched over to computer science thinking that I’d go make computer games, but then began to see the power of applying computational approaches to studying biology.  Around that time, genomes were coming online and managing all of that data was a tough challenge for many biologists, so they were looking for computer scientists.  I had training in both (kind of rare at the time) and stepped into the field.  The more I explored, the more I became fascinated by the idea that all of the genes in a bacteria’s genome allowed it to do the most amazing things! Since microbes influence almost every living organism, it didn’t matter what I wanted to study, there would always be a microbial component.  So now I get to study leaf-cutter ants and the microbes associated with them.  They are probably one of the coolest systems around, and seeing a trail of ants carrying leaves in the rainforest still captivates me to this day!

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? That no matter how hard things seem, if you are willing to work hard and you are motivated to succeed, you will.  I never thought of a career in research because I always thought you had to be the smartest kid in class.  I certainly was never that.  For example, during my second year in university, I spent way too much time playing computer games – so much so that my grades dropped so low that I was put on probation and I was almost kicked out of school.  That fear really motivated me to get my act together and I began to realize the importance of working hard.  As my interest in computer science and biology developed, my motivation became one of pure curiosity.  Combine that curiosity with hard work and you will end up succeeding.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? This may sound a bit morbid, but I used to collect ants and drop them onto spider webs to see how quickly the spider could handle killing the victims caught in its web.  Watching a spider weave its net to capture its victim is still one of the neatest things in nature.  This is probably more of an exploration in natural history rather than an actual experiment, but it shaped my interest in insects more than anything.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? Being able to think about interesting scientific questions and designing cool experiments to answer those questions.  Since I’m surrounded by other scientists who also get excited by the same things I do, it makes it a lot of fun.  The crazy thing is that we get paid to do this!

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? Keeping an open mind.  Oftentimes you’ll walk into an experiment with a hypothesis that you think you know the answer to.  However, many times your experiments will show you something completely different, and you have to be open to changing your perspective.  The hardest thing is to accept the fact that your original thoughts aren’t true.  It’s tough because when your analyses don’t work out quite the way you want them to, you’ll feel like you’ve wasted all of your time doing a pointless experiment.  It’s not easy publishing negative results, but the most effective researchers learn how to deal with negative results and turn that experience into a positive one.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Being in the bioenergy field, our work is focused on finding new enzymes that can more efficiently break down cellulose in plant cell walls.  This is the first step in the production of cellulosic ethanol and the current set of enzymes used in industry isn’t very good at doing this.  Our research hypothesizes that herbivores, which use bacteria to convert plant cell walls into nutrients, have really efficient enzymes.  By studying these bacteria, we hope to find better enzymes that can convert cellulose into simple sugars and thus, increase our ability to produce cellulosic ethanol.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My Ph.D. advisor, Roy Welch at Syracuse University.  He taught me to think outside of the box and not to be afraid to propose ideas that went against normal thinking.  My first publication did exactly that, and likely made quite a few people unhappy because our data suggested that what people thought, was not likely correct.  Time will tell if we are proven correct!

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? Probably that research isn’t as exciting as some people think it is.  Just like any other job, it’s mostly tedious and monotonous.  In fact, most of the time you’re just setting up experiments, getting frustrated when things don’t work and spending way too much time trying to troubleshoot something – or fixing a piece of equipment that is broken.  The fun parts are the Eureka moments and the joy of success when you finally get an experiment to work and it confirms your hypothesis.  I think I’m probably more fortunate than most biologists in my field as part of my research includes going to places like Panama and tromping in the rainforest.  There’s nothing quite like hiking through the rainforest and coming across a troop of Howler Monkeys or an eyelash viper off the trail – something you just don’t see every day walking to work! But those types of moments aren’t that often and doing research is very similar to any other job – you have the same set of frustrations and complications that everyone else has.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? My backup hard drive.  As a biologist that’s spent a lot of time analyzing DNA sequences, I have almost all of my data on my backup drive.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? We have so many people in our lab that it’s hard to meet everyone’s musical tastes.  Generally, we turn the radio onto a station that plays a wide variety of music, so it’s not uncommon to hear everything from Led Zepplin to Madonna to Lady Gaga.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.  See the ScienceLives archive.