What was the unpronounceable tangle of letters?
As Morgan Jackson and David Winter simultaneously surmised, it was a coded amino acid sequence- part of a glutamine synthetase protein. This particular one was sequenced from Blochmannia floridanus, a bacterium that lives in the gut of the Florida carpenter ant Camponotus floridanus.
I’m going to award 6 points each to Morgan and David for getting the identities of the protein and the organism.
I won’t give full credit, though, because no one guessed why I might find this protein interesting. It has to do with an outstanding mystery of myrmecology:
Why are there so many species of Camponotus?
There must be over 1,000 species of Camponotus worldwide. It’s an enormously diverse group of insects, and presumably their success is related to some aspect of their biology that differs from other ants.
One hypothesis involves the Blochmannia bacteria that live in their guts. These bacteria are especially skilled at processing nitrogen, thanks to proteins like glutamine synthetase, and it may be that Blochmannia allow Camponotus to subsist on nitrogen-rich food unavailable to other ants. Food sources like vertebrate urine, for example. It’s not uncommon to find Camponotus feasting on little piles of bird droppings, as in the photo above.
I don’t know that Blochmannia is the key to solving the Camponotus conundrum. But it is one place where I’d start looking.