Ants May Hold Our Future in Their Exoskeletons

Antibiotic resistance is a growing threat to the human population. Scientists are on the search for new ways to fight this growing threat. In march the ants. A new study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal found that “not only do ants produce their own antimicrobial agents, but they can also encourage other beneficial microbes to grow.” Ants are a lot like us, or so the scientists claim:

Like humans, the more than 12,000 species of ants are all highly social. This behaviour increases the chance that they come into to contact with germs. Comparable to our towns and cities, ant colonies take communal living to the next level, with up to tens of millions of individuals cohabiting in a single nest.

First of all, 12,000 species of ants?! That thought alone is enough to kill my appetite, which is a feat in and of itself. And the phrase “tens of millions” of ants is definitely going to seep into a nightmare for me one day. Regardless, scientists say that:

Millions of years of evolution in a high-risk environment have made ants a potential source of vital antimicrobials…This adds to the idea that ants could well be a good source of new antibiotics…

For example, researchers recently discovered a bacterium living among one ant species that produces compounds capable of killing harmful bacteria resistant to conventional antibiotics, including the common superbug MRSA.

Experts hope these substances could be turned into drugs that would be tested in human trials, a potential major breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic resistance. In light of this information, I’m willing to look just a little more kindly at the ant infestations my apartment suffers in the summer months, but just barely.

Zombie Fungus Among Us

A fungus found in tropical forests, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, (save that for your next game of Scattergories) uses a mind controlling chemical concoction to control the brains of ants.

Once an ant is infected with the fungus, the cells of the fungus multiply and start working with each other. They build short tubes as a way to communicate and exchange nutrients. They also begin to invade the ants muscles, but leave the brain untouched:

Together, these brainless cells can commandeer the brain of a much larger creature…

Over the course of a week, it compels the ant to leave the safety of its nest and ascend a nearby plant stem. It stops the ant at a height of 25 centimeters—a zone with precisely the right temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow…

It effectively cuts the ant’s limbs off from its brain and inserts itself in place, releasing chemicals that force the muscles there to contract. If this is right, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its own body.

The fungus forces the ant to lock its little ant legs around a leaf, and “eventually, it sends a long stalk through the ant’s head, growing into a bulbous capsule full of spores.” This is a pretty gruesome thing to do to an ant, even if you are a bug hater like me.