Ants found to use multiple antibiotics as weed killers

Aug 26, 2010

Scientists at the University of East Anglia, have shown that fungus-farming ants are using multiple antibiotics as weed killers to maintain their fungus gardens.

Research led by Dr Matt Hutchings and published today in the journal BMC Biology shows that ants use the to inhibit the growth of unwanted fungi and bacteria in their fungus cultures which they use to feed their larvae and queen.

These antibiotics are produced by actinomycete bacteria that live on the ants in a mutual symbiosis.

Although these ants have been studied for more than 100 years this is the first demonstration that a single uses multiple antibiotics and is reminiscent of the use of multidrug therapy to treat infections in humans.

The work, which was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, has also identified a new antibiotic that could be used to treat fungal infections.

Fungiculture in the insect world is practiced by ants, termites, beetles and gall midges.

Dr Hutchings' research investigates the Acromyrmex octospinosus leaf cutter ant, endemic in South and Central America and the southern US. These ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on earth with colonies of up to several million individuals. The garden worker ants researched were collected from three colonies in Trinidad and Tobago.

Dr Hutchings said: "This was really a fun project which started with a PhD student, Joerg Barke, streaking leaf-cutting ants onto agar plates to isolate antibiotic producing bacteria.

"We found a new antifungal compound that is related to a clinically important antifungal named nystatin so we're excited about the potential of these ants and other insects to provide us with new antibiotics for medical use.

"It's also very exciting that not only evolved agriculture before humans but also combination therapy with natural antibiotics. Humans are just starting to realise that this is one way to slow down the rise of - the so called superbugs.

"Joerg, with his colleagues Ryan Seipke and Sabine Gruschow, really pushed this project forwards and made these major discoveries. They really deserve most of the credit for this work," he added.

Explore further: Big city life: New leafhopper species found on a threatened grass in New Jersey

More information: The paper, entitled 'A mixed community of actinomycetes produce multiple antibiotics for the fungus farming ant Acromyrmex octospinosus' is published in BMC Biology.

Related Stories

Farming and chemical warfare: A day in the life of an ant?

Nov 17, 2008

One of the most important developments in human civilisation was the practice of sustainable agriculture. But we were not the first - ants have been doing it for over 50 million years. Just as farming helped humans become ...

Long-term co-evolution stability studied

Jun 27, 2006

U.S. biologists say the world's fungus-farming ants cultivate essentially the same fungus and aren't as critical to fungi reproduction as had been thought.

Recommended for you

Mitochondrial metagenomics: How '-omics' is saving wild bees

7 hours ago

Mitochondrial genome (mitogenome) database demonstrated its great value on detecting wild bees in UK farms via mitochondrial metagenomics pipeline, a new approach developed by scientists from the China National Genebank (CNGB), ...

Study shows grey squirrels are quick learners

Jul 06, 2015

They may be viewed by some as an invasive species or a commonplace pest of public parks, but a new study from the University of Exeter has shown that grey squirrels are actually quick learners capable of ...

Age and fertility in social insects

Jul 06, 2015

A new research unit coordinated at the University of Freiburg tackles the question of why the otherwise usual trade-off between fecundity and lifespan in multicellular organisms is not present in social insects ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.