Could ants be the solution to antibiotic crisis?
Bacterial defences of fungus-farming ants could help in medical battle against superbugs
Scientists have pinpointed a promising new source of antibiotics: ants. They have found that some species – including leaf-cutter ants from the Amazon – use bacteria to defend their nests against invading fungi and microbes.
Chemicals excreted by the bacteria as part of this fight have been shown to have particularly powerful antibiotic effects and researchers are now preparing to test them in animals to determine their potential as medicines for humans.
Doctors say new antibiotics are urgently needed as superbug resistance to standard antimicrobial agents spreads. More than 700,000 people globally now die of drug-resistant infections each year, it is estimated – and some health officials say this figure could be even higher.
Last week, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the first general assembly meeting on drug-resistant bacteria, said antimicrobial resistance was now a fundamental threat to global health.
This was reiterated by Professor Cameron Currie of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, one of the scientists involved in the ant research.
“Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem,” he said last week. “However, pinpointing new antibiotics using the standard technique of sampling soil for bacteria is tricky. On average, only one in a million strains proves promising. By contrast, we have uncovered a promising strain of bacteria for every 15 strains we have sampled from an ant’s nest.”
Only a very specific group of ants are proving useful in this work, however. These are species that farm fungi in tropical regions in North and South America.
“These ants forage for plant material, which they bring back to their nests and feed to a fungus,” said Professor Jon Clardy of Harvard Medical School. “The fungus breaks down the plant material and the ants feed on the fungus.”
The strategy evolved around 15 million years ago, and has proved highly successful. There are now more than 200 ant species that farm fungi. Most fungus-farming ants simply forage for bits of old leaf or grass on the ground, however. A few, like leaf-cutter ants, cut leaves from trees and bring them back in pieces to their nest. “Plants are hard to digest, but fungi are good decomposers and break down plant material so ants can feed easily,” said Ethan Van Arnam, also of Harvard Medical School.
However, scientists have recently discovered that these nests are sometimes attacked by hostile fungi. “They kill off both the nest and its farmed fungus,” said Clardy. “In turn, ants have developed defences revealed as white patches on their bodies. They look as if they had been dipped in powdered sugar. These patches are made of bacteria which the ant stores on its body. Crucially, these bacteria produce powerful antibiotic and antifungal agents.”
In this way, ants nurture bacteria which in turn make antifungal and antibacterial agents that defend nests. More to the point, these bacteria are similar to the ones used by pharmaceutical companies to make antibiotics. A typical example is Apterostigma ants, whose bacterial strains have been isolated in Panama and brought back to Harvard by Van Arnam. Many show promising antibiotic activity, he told the Observer.
“The ants don’t always win,” added Clardy. “You occasionally come across nests that have been overcome by invading fungi. But it is clear ants and their bacteria put up a very good fight, one that has been going on for millions of years. The result has been the production of some very interesting antibiotics.”
Clardy said foreign bacteria also attacked the ant’s microbe defences. “The bacteria in the nests get a really good deal. They are protected and fed by ants. Other strains of bacteria want to take over that comfortable niche. It is the bacterial equivalent of Game of Thrones. Everyone is trying to kill off everyone else and get to the top. The result has been the development of some very powerful antibiotic weapons. These are the end products of an arms race that has been going on for 15 million years. Our trick is to isolate the best of these weapons and use them to make new antibiotics for humans.”
Bizarre ant colony discovered in an abandoned Polish nuclear weapons bunker
Scientists describe workers trapped for years in "a hostile environment in total darkness."
For the past several years, a group of researchers has been observing a seemingly impossible wood ant colony living in an abandoned nuclear weapons bunker in Templewo, Poland, near the German border. Completely isolated from the outside world, these members of the species Formica polyctena have created an ant society unlike anything we've seen before.
The Soviets built the bunker during the Cold War to store nuclear weapons, sinking it below ground and planting trees on top as camouflage. Eventually a massive colony of wood ants took up residence in the soil over the bunker. There was just one problem: the ants built their nest directly over a vertical ventilation pipe. When the metal covering on the pipe finally rusted away, it left a dangerous, open hole. Every year when the nest expands, thousands of worker ants fall down the pipe and cannot climb back out. The survivors have nevertheless carried on for years underground, building a nest from soil and maintaining it in typical wood ant fashion. Except, of course, that this situation is far from normal.
Polish Academy of Sciences zoologist Wojciech Czechowski and his colleagues discovered the nest after a group of other zoologists found that bats were living in the bunker. Though it was technically not legal to go inside, the bat researchers figured out a way to squeeze into the small, confined space and observe the animals inside. Czechowski's team followed suit when they heard that the place was swarming with ants. What they found, over two seasons of observation, was a group of almost a million worker ants whose lives are so strange that they hesitate to call them a "colony" in the observations they just published in The Journal of Hymenoptera. Because conditions in the bunker are so harsh, constantly cold, and mostly barren, the ants seem to live in a state of near-starvation. They produce no queens, no males, and no offspring. The massive group tending the nest is entirely composed of non-reproductive female workers, supplemented every year by a new rain of unfortunate ants falling down the ventilation shaft.
Like most ant species, wood ants are tidy animals who remove waste from their colony. In the case of the bunker ants, most of this waste is composed of dead bodies. The researchers speculate that mortality in the "colony" is likely much higher than under normal circumstances. "Flat parts of the earthen mound [of the nest] and the floor of the adjacent spaces ... were carpeted with bodies of dead ants," write Czechowski and colleagues. This "ant cemetery" was a few centimeters thick in places, and "one cubic decimeter sample contained [roughly] 8,000 corpses," which led the researchers to suggest that there were likely 2 million dead ants piled around the nest mound. The sheer numbers of dead bodies suggest that this orphaned wood ant nest has been active for many years.
The ant graveyard is also host to a tiny ecosystem, where mites and a few other invertebrates feed on the bodies of the dead wood ants. The question is, what are the wood ants eating? It's possible they have figured out how to eat the creatures who feast in their cemeteries, essentially making them cannibals at one remove. But Czechowski and his team dismiss this as unlikely. It's also possible that there are nutrients growing in the bat guano from the ants' only living neighbors in the bunker. But in their years of observation, the scientists still haven't figured out for certain what the ants' source of food is.
Wood ants are known for surviving in harsh conditions, and they have been found on remote islands as well as living in small, closed boxes. And it's not impossible that this underworld colony could bloom into something more. In a previous experiment, Czechowski showed that orphaned wood ant colonies will adopt queens from related species. So if a queen ant fell down the pipe, she might join this colony and start reproducing. Unfortunately, however, without a steady food supply the ants probably wouldn't have enough energy to raise a new generation and keep the nest warm for them. So the only way this nest carries on is by waiting for a new rain of ants from the free colony above ground.
The paper's conclusion reads like a dystopian science fiction scene from the 1970s:
The wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.
Life in an abandoned nuclear weapons bunker is nightmarish, even for the humble ant. It appears that the legacy of the Soviet occupation of Poland doesn't just haunt the country's human population. It has affected the social structures of insects too.
by ANNALEE NEWITZ
6 things you didn't know about ants, and how to kill them
Ants are marvelous creatures.
They're organized, brave, strategic – and you may have heard about how certain ants can lift up to 50 times their body weight.
But here's where ants aren't so marvelous: In your home.
Ants are among the most-common household pests in the world, parading through the kitchens, bathrooms and living spaces of city dwellers and suburbanites alike.
Of course, it's easy to dismiss their presence as a harmless nuisance, but when you find them in your loaf of bread, swimming at the bottom of your lemonade or worse, tangled in your hair, a line has to be drawn.
The good news? Ants are fairly easy to eradicate if you take the proper measures, and according to a 2015 Raid® consumer survey, the majority of Americans (82%) say that they aren't afraid to handle the problem themselves.
However, as with any pest, the more you know about them, the smarter you can be when it comes to getting rid of them.
Here's some “ant-astic” trivia that can aid you in your next bout with those crafty, six-legged interlopers.
1. Who run the world?
Ants build sophisticated societies with a distinct and entrenched social order: The queen (or several queens, in some cases) is the colony's sole way to reproduce and most important member; the queen is guarded by a group of soldier ants, and the remaining population works to feed the colony.
Funny enough, most of the colony is female — soldiers and workers included. Male ants exist purely to mate, and then die shortly after.
Tip: Succession can be complicated. So when ridding your house of ants, your number one priority should be taking out the queen. Without reproductive resources, the colony will fold in no time.
2. Follow the leader
When you see ants marching across your kitchen counter in a straight line, it isn't because they think it looks fancy. Rather, each ant in the line is following a pheromone trail left by the first ant to ever travel that route. Pheromones are chemical signals that ants lay down to attract and guide other ants to locations, such as food sources. The more ants that use the trail, the stronger the pheromone scent becomes.
Tip: Pheromone trails make it fairly easy to predict where ants will enter and exit your home. Monitor popular ant thoroughfares and strategically deploy baits along those routes.
3. Only the good die young
You can have an ant infestation for a year and potentially never see the same ant twice. Ant colonies are built for longevity, and can survive as long as the queen continues to populate the community, but some worker ants, on the other hand, only have a life span of up to a month.
Tip: When controlling ant invasions in your home, it's important to focus on eliminating the source — not just the current wave making its way across your dinner table. Use baits to get active ingredients into the colony and kill ants where they hide.
4. Introducing the New York City of ant colonies
Each species of ant has its own unique chemical profile — kind of like a fingerprint — that allows colony members to identify their own and weed out intruders. However, that chemical profile doesn’t always end with a single "hill." Some ants, like the Argentine ant, have found their way into every continent on Earth except Antarctica. Since this species has multiple queens, it can bud off to inhabit a new geographic location, allowing a single colony to stretch across continents to establish massive populations.
Tip: Even if your baits successfully eliminate one colony, there may be others on the way. Once you've gotten ants out of your home, it's important to protect its exterior, both by shoring-up cracks and entry points as well as spraying barrier sprays.
5. They aren't just after your food
It's easy to get caught up in visions of ants escorting a full pot roast out your back door, but like most living things, ants are just as interested in your water as they are your food. Ants will both drink water they come across and transport some back to the colony to nourish the queen.
Tip: When ant-proofing your home, don’t just secure your food items — make sure the surfaces in your home, sinks included, are kept dry.
6. Creating a defense system is the best way to help control & kill ants
A sophisticated problem requires a sophisticated solution. As discussed, simply killing the ants you see will only help you in the short term. The best defense you can mount includes a variety of resources, including baits and on-contact sprays.
by mashable Australia
Finding new species may call to mind images of scientists tracking mysterious footprints in the mud or cutting paths through the dense jungle.
But sometimes, a discovery is as easy as getting a frog to open its mouth and say, “Ah.”
Such is the case for Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri, a new tropical ant species found in the belly of a diablito, or little devil frog (Oophaga sylvatica), in Ecuador.
The diablito, a kind of bright orange poison frog, is known for its love of ants, says Christian Rabeling, a myrmecologist at the University of Rochester, New York. The new ant species is named after Bert Hölldobler, a German evolutionary biologist and ant expert, for his 80th birthday.
Because ant-eating frogs go hunting for bugs in tiny and hard-to-access places, scientists use them as a tool to go where they can’t go. By capturing a wild frog and flushing their stomachs, the amphibians vomit whatever is in their bellies—revealing potential treasures, like the new ant.
“Sometimes people think that our world is very well explored. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Rabeling, who led a new study on the ant, published September 19 by the journal ZooKeys.
Because the only known specimen of L. hoelldobleri is a dead one from a frog's stomach, scientists know almost nothing about it.
A glimpse through a high-powered stereomicroscope at that ill-fated ant, however, has offered a few clues. (See "Watch: Ants Use Giant Jaws to Catapult Out of Death Trap.")
“The shape of the mandibles reminds me of forceps,” says Rabeling. This may mean that the ant, which is less than a quarter of an inch long, uses its mouthparts to pry even smaller prey animals, such as termites, out of tight crevices. “But I am just speculating,” he admits.
If the scientists could find living L. hoelldobleri in the Ecuadoran rain forest, the team they could submit the little guys to a “cafeteria test," which means offering an animal multiple prey items to see what it prefers. (See "Surprising Ant 'Mixing Bowl' Found in Manhattan.")
“The difficulty is finding the ants!” says Rabeling.
The little devil frog, obviously, has figured out how to locate them—and for good reason.
Poison frogs get their namesake chemical defenses from alkaloids found in the ants and other critters they consume, says Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic grantee and director of the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center.
"Physiologists regard ants as mini chemical factories," adds Rabeling. The insects likely use the chemicals as signals to communicate with other ants in their complex societies.
As for where the ants get their alkaloids, Kolby says some species may acquire it from the plants they eat. But what role, if any, L. hoelldobleri may play in the poison game is anyone’s guess.
Belly of the Beast
Because many amphibians are endangered—the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists O. sylvatica as near threatened—any research with wild frogs must be done carefully, and only by trained experts, Rabeling notes. (Read more about why amphibians are vanishing.)
To flush the stomach, scientists insert a soft tube into the amphibian’s mouth and gently fill it with water, prompting whatever the frog has eaten recently to flow out of its mouth and onto a tray. The frog can then be safely returned to its natural habitat.
This is not the first time a new species has been found inside another animal’s stomach, by the way. Kolby points to the example of Dunn’s earth snake (Geophis dunni), which was found in the stomach of a coral snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus) in Nicaragua in 1932.
Furthermore, it seems L. hoelldobleri had some company in the little devil frog’s stomach. The research project that first identified the new ant also found several other as-of-yet undescribed insects.
It seems the little devil’s frog's belly might be the gift that keeps on giving.
By Jason Bittel
How do I get rid of ants?
Although ants generally don’t cause harm to people — they don’t carry disease, like some other pests — an infestation can be a major nuisance.
“Ants can be extremely persistent creatures, seemingly coming from nowhere and can be difficult to entirely get rid of,” says Kelly Garvin of Greenix Pest Control in Dublin, Ohio.
Fortunately, DIY and professional pest removal options are available.
REASONS FOR ANT INFESTATION
Ants typically invade your home for one reason: food. Most feed on sugary or greasy items.
Sugar ants — also called odorous house ants — are one of the most common ant invaders and among the first pests to show up in the spring. They’re about one-eighth of an inch or smaller and are attracted to food sources.
The common pavement ant, which is brown to black and about 1/10th of an inch long, will set up colonies near driveways or patios and then send out scouts to search for food in your home. They eat meat, grease, seeds, dead or live insects, and can sting and bite if disturbed.
Argentine Ants — about 4 to 4.5 mm long ONE size. Usually come into your house for food. Loves protein and fat, often found in your dishwasher or pantry.
Coastal Brown Ants- two sizes. Dark brown, loves protein often found in dishwasher. Two sizes one has a BIG head.
Knowing what type of ant you’re dealing with can help you prevent or combat an infestation.
KEEPING ANTS OUT
The first step to prevent an ant infestation: clean house. If you see scout ants in your home, kill them immediately. Make sure you don’t leave any food out and keep all kitchen surfaces clean.
If you continue to see ants, make sure you’ve closed off possible entry points, including sealing small cracks in your walls or under windows. Start by caulking potential entry points, such as window casings.
Next, you can lay down barriers like salt or talc under doors to turn ants away, or apply scents such as vinegar, peppermint oil or cinnamon. Bear in mind, however, that anything you put down will also be of interest to pets and children, so be careful what you use.
DIY METHODS FOR ANT REMOVAL
If ant explorers have morphed into a full-on colony, then you need a plan.
Start with soap and water. This will not only kill chemical trails, but any ants it touches. Add citrus to the water to increase its effectiveness.
You can also purchase pest sprays and baited ant traps from local grocery and hardware stores. These use a mixture of sugars and ant poison, such as boric acid to attract, trap and kill ants. Proceed with caution when using poison.
Bear in mind, too, that these traps won’t work on protein-feeders like Coastal Brown or Argentine Ants, since the sweetness won’t interest them.
In addition to trapping ants inside, you can also spray around the exterior of the home where the house meets the pavement or ground to prevent more ants from infiltrating, says David Anderson of Eastside Exterminators in Woodinville, Wash.
Garvin recommends spraying problem areas with a mixture of Windex, vinegar and water. She says spreading Diatomaceous Earth in carpeted areas around the bathroom is a safe and natural way to kill ants because it’s a food source.
“The Windex or vinegar is really a quick fix and not really that effective, but it will remove the immediate ants and wipe away their pheromone scent they use to follow trails,” Garvin says.
Dan Miles, owner of Total Exterminating in Indianapolis, suggests spraying all cracks around the baseboards and the base of the toilet if the infestation is in the bathroom.
HIRE A PEST CONTROL PROFESSIONAL
Large-scale infestations require assistance from a pest control professional.
Pros address ant problems by locating the colony itself; typically this starts by laying bait traps, which contain poisoned food taken back to the nest. Once found, exterminators can use a variety of techniques including chemical sprays to totally eliminate the ants in your home.
Modified from Tom Moor Article