Health In Focus
  • Solenopsis molesta, also known as the thief ant was the ant species found to produce the most powerful antimicrobial agents.
  • While sixty percent of ant species tested produced antimicrobial agents against the bacteria used, the remaining did not produce any at all.
  • Ants that produce antibiotics could be the source of new antibiotics that could help fight human diseases.

Studying twenty different ant species, researchers discovered that only sixty percent of them produce antibiotics contrary to the popular belief that all ants are capable of producing at least one type of antimicrobial. Like humans, ants also use antibiotics to fight invading bacteria. The current study revealed certain antibiotic-producing ant species that can be useful treatment sources to help fight human diseases.

Study overview

The study conducted by North Carolina State University scientists tested the antimicrobial properties of twenty different ant species.
  • First, a solvent was used to remove all substances from the surface of the ant's body.
  • This solution was then introduced to a bacterial slurry.
  • Growth of bacteria in the slurry was then compared to the growth of bacteria in a control group that did not contain the ant's surface substances.
If bacteria in the slurry that contained the ant solution grew less than the control, it meant that there was some antimicrobial property in that slurry that prevented bacterial growth. That would mean that the ant species in that slurry produced its antibiotic kill attacking bacteria.

Study findings

  • Twelve of the twenty ant species (sixty percent) tested had antimicrobial agents on their exoskeletons.
  • The other eight ant species did not make antibiotics against the bacteria that were used in the study.
  • An ant species called Solenopsis molesta also known as the thief ant had the most powerful antibiotic properties. This study was also the first to report antimicrobials in few ant species including the thief ant.
"Finding a species that carries a powerful antimicrobial agent is good news for those interested in finding new antibiotic agents that can help humans," Adrian Smith, co-author of the paper says. "But the fact that so many ant species appear to have little or no chemical defense against microbial pathogens is also important."
Future Antibiotics Could be Obtained from Ants

While it is widespread belief that most ant species carry at least one type of antimicrobial, this study shows that only sixty percent of the ant species tested had antimicrobial properties. The other forty percent did not produce antimicrobials.

"We thought every ant species would produce at least some type of antimicrobial," says Clint Penick, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University says. "Instead, it seems like many species have found alternative ways to prevent infection that does not rely on antimicrobial chemicals."

The study suggests that instead of looking for antibiotics in all species of ants, it is better to refine the search for species that hold promise.

Study limitations

The study only takes into account 20 ant species when there are over 12,000 different species in the world. Moreover, the antimicrobial activity was tested for only a particular bacteria. It is highly possible that the ant species that did not produce any antimicrobial agents against the bacteria used in the study produce antimicrobials against other bacterial strains.

"Next steps include testing ant species against other bacteria; determining what substances are producing the antibiotic effects - and whether ants produce them or obtain them elsewhere; and exploring what alternative strategies ants use to defend against bacterial pathogens," Smith says.

References :
  1. Clint A. Penick, Omar Halawani, Bria Pearson and Adrian A. Smith, Stephanie Mathews, Campbell University; Margarita López-Uribe, and Robert R. Dunn. "External immunity in ant societies: sociality and colony size do not predict investment in antimicrobials" Royal Society Open Science DOI: 10.1098/rsos.171332
Source: Medindia

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