Living in dense colonies gives ants an advantage that has allowed them to dominate whatever environment they happen to find themselves in. But as with humans living in crowded cities, being packed in so close to your neighbors means that the threat of disease outbreaks is pretty high.
Millions of years before humans stumbled across them, ants were using antibiotics to control potentially devastating bacterial infections from sweeping through nests. It was thought that because of the colonial nature of the insects, most ant species would be harnessing and using their own types of antibiotics, but a new study has questioned that.
Researchers conducted a comparative analysis of 20 different ant species. They took swabs from the surfaces of all the different ants and then mixed them with a slurry of bacteria to test which would grow, comparing it all to a control group. If the researchers found that certain bacteria grew less when mixed with the swabs taken from the ants than they did in the control, it meant that the ants were coated in an antibacterial, which targets that particular microorganism.
It turns out that while 12 of the species tested showed antimicrobial properties, a surprisingly high 8 did not. “Finding a species that carries a powerful antimicrobial agent is good news for those interested in finding new antibiotic agents that can help humans,” explained Adrian Smith, co-author of the paper published in Royal Society Open Science. “But the fact that so many ant species appear to have little or no chemical defense against microbial pathogens is also important.”
As well as finding some ants that seemingly don’t produce antibiotics, at least not covering their bodies, they also discovered that one ant species made the most powerful antibiotics so far known, and it was a species that until now had not been proven to create any at all. The ant in question is the thief ant, and the antibiotics on its surface killed all the bacteria in the experiment.
This information is important, as we turn to ants to see if they can teach us a thing or two about medicine. You probably don’t need to be told by now that doctors and medical professionals are genuinely concerned that we are going to run out of antibiotics in the not too distant future.
The number of new antibiotics discovered has almost ground to a halt while bacteria are continuing to evolve resistance to the ones we already have. This is putting serious pressure on the hunt for novel ways to treat microorganisms, and researchers are increasingly turning to nature in the hunt.