TNCC Student Conducts Scientific Research in Central America


Published: October 7, 2009

Michael Cagle’s learning extends far beyond textbooks. The Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) Biology student recently completed his own research project. The investigation, “Tropical Leaf-Cutter Ants: Is Antimicrobial Activity Exhibited during the Harvesting and Transfer of Leaves?” examines the use of chemicals secreted by the leaf-cutter ants to kill bacteria inside and outside of the nest.

Cagle started the investigation earlier this year when he and 10 other TNCC students traded a relaxing spring break for intensive field research in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The trip, which was February 25 – March 8, was part of BIO 295: Topics in Biology: Tropical Ecosystem Ecology. Jennifer Martin, Assistant Professor of Biology, organized the trip for her students and was accompanied by Dr. Donald K. Bartholomay, Dean of Science and Allied Health. The itinerary included studies of rainforest, mangrove forest, marine and freshwater ecology. “Ecosystem diversity was the theme for this course,” Martin said.

As part of the requirements, each student chose an area of original research that was in direct correlation with the region. “We had a lecture in class before the trip about the leaf-cutter ants, and I thought they were really cool,” Cagle said.

From lectures and research, Cagle learned that leaf-cutter ants release a chemical inside the nest to reduce the growth of bacteria that may attack the food. He aimed to find out whether the ants release the same bacteria outside of the nest while harvesting the food to reduce the amount of bacteria that makes it close to the nest. Cagle’s hypothesis asserted that leaf-cutter ants release an antimicrobial substance while harvesting leaves that reduces bacterial abundance on leaves thus reducing the bacteria available to attack their fungal food. “They are using these leaves to raise a fungus. (If) the fungus gets infected, they’re entire colony can be wiped out,” Cagle said.

Cagle conducted his research using sterile Petri dishes to grow the bacteria and he used a short trail of leaf-cutter ants to test his theory. The findings supported his hypothesis. According to his observations, the leaf-cutter ants secrete a chemical outside of the nest to protect the colony from bacteria. “I was really hoping to get to see them at work,” Cagle said. “They’re awesome.”

If given the chance, Cagle would like to travel back to the region to conduct more research and have his findings published in a scientific journal. The 2008 Poquoson High School graduate will complete the requirements for an Associate of Science degree at TNCC in May. He plans to continue his education at William & Mary where he will study Biology with an emphasis in Entomology.

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