The digestive physiology and biochemistry of larvae of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex subterraneus were investigated here. The activity of digestive enzymes was evaluated in the labial glands, midgut epithelium (soluble and particulate fractions), and in the lumen contents, separated into endo and ectoperitrophic regions. Enzymes with high levels of activity were partially characterised using chromatography and electrophoresis techniques. Microscope observations were carried out and the anatomy of the larval digestive tract was described here for the first time. Larvae fed with pH indicator solutions showed the anterior portion of the midgut to be acidic and the posterior portion neutral to alkaline, indicating that the pH of the different regions of the midgut could optimise certain enzyme activities, whilst inhibiting others. The flow rate of the intestinal contents was also evaluated in larvae fed with a dye solution. The slow flow rate is probably due to closure of the rear end of the larval midgut. No compartmentalisation of digestive enzymes acting on oligosaccharides and disaccharides in the ectoperitrophic space and on polysaccharides in the endoperitrophic space was observed here, which could also be related to the closure of the midgut. The digestive physiology of these larvae is therefore similar to ancestral Holometabola, a paradox when considering the highly evolved nature of these insects. The larval midgut demonstrated a large diversity of enzyme activities with high levels of α-amylase, α-mannosidase, chitinase, α-glucosidase, β-glucosidase and proteinase. High levels of chitinase and amylase activities were detected in the labial glands of larvae. The enzyme profile reflected the necessity of the larvae to degrade the fungal substrate, their sole diet, and a probable source of some of the digestive enzymes detected here. When compared to adults, the larvae had a greater diversity and higher levels of enzyme activity, highlighting their importance as the "digestive caste" of the colony. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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