Single-Celled Farmers

January 21, 2011

Rheanna Sand


We humans like to think of ourselves as uniquely intelligent and resourceful. Look at me! I have opposable thumbs and binocular vision so I'm going to rule the WORLD! But we really need to get over ourselves - we're not the only clever ones on this planet. Gorillas can do sign language. Crows can use tools. Cats have successfully domesticated us. Now apparently Gary Larson's favourite single-celled creature, the amoeba, can farm. A research letter published in the January 20th issue of Nature details the remarkable "primitive agriculture" of bacteria by a social species of amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum. In their paper, Debra Brock and colleagues collected 35 wild amoeba clones (colonies) to better understand the nature of the association between these two organisms - was it symbiotic, or simply predator-prey? What they found was surprising: a third of the wild clones engaged in bacterial husbandry. Instead of eating all the bacteria, the "farmer" amoebae would store some inside the fruiting body, which is a mobile, slug-like glob of tens of thousands of amoebae that forms when food is scarce. The bacteria are kept alive and eventually deposited onto a nutrient-rich surface, where they are allowed to grow once more into a viable food source.

Incidentally, there are more tiny creatures that farm even tinier creatures. Ants use aphids as a type of livestock, milking them for their sugary secretions. Ants have also been recorded farming fungus, as have beetles, termites, and marine snails. The authors of this most recent example point out that this strategy makes sense for animals that live in groups of highly related kin - the benefits of farming are multi-generational, and what better way to ensure your genes are passed on but by sustaining thousands of relatives?

And, cue joke about farmers being highly related to each other…*dueling banjos*


Brock, D., Douglas, T., Queller, D., & Strassmann, J. (2011). Primitive agriculture in a social amoeba Nature, 469 (7330), 393-396 DOI: 10.1038/nature09668



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