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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Note on Emerging Science / Ants’ Social Immunity

Air Date: Week of
Healthy worker ants remove the infectious fungal pathogen from an exposed ant (marked with a red dot) by grooming. (Photo: Matthias Konrad, IST Austria)

Scientists have discovered that ant colonies function like a giant immune system. As Mary Bates reports, when one ant gets sick, others take action to immunize the rest of the colony.


GELLERMAN: Just ahead - Catching the ferry to Cliff Island, Maine. A trip back in time to see if the place has a future. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Mary Bates.

[SOUNDS FROM THE MOVIE “ANTZ”: “A soldier knows that the life of an individual ant does not matter. What matters is the colony. He’s willing to live for the colony, to fight for the colony, to die for the colony.”]

BATES: General Mandible in the movie “Antz,” inspired soldier ants to join together in their fight against termites. It turns out, in the real world, ants work together not just to defend themselves from other bugs, but in the fight against disease.


BATES: Ant colonies are like tiny, crowded cities. Like cities, there is a high risk of disease outbreaks. But scientists from the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria found ants have a system for keeping outbreaks in check.
The researchers applied fluorescent fungal spores to some ants and followed the sick ants’ interactions with nest-mates over two days. They watched as the spores spread throughout the colony without causing a major disease outbreak.
They discovered that ants do not avoid their sick friends. Instead, they lick them to remove pathogens from their bodies. By grooming an infected ant, the helper ant catches a low-level infection. This infection acts as a vaccination, revving up immune genes that help the ant fight off the pathogen.

Only two percent of an infected ant’s nestmates died after grooming their diseased comrade, while more than sixty percent enjoyed a stimulated immune system.

Taking care of sick ants and sharing germs protects the entire colony from disease. It gives new meaning to share and share alike.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Mary Bates.




Article in PLoS Biology


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