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January, 2024

"Warlike" ants can treat inflamed wounds with proprietary antibiotics

An African aggressive ant species was already known to evacuate and care for its injured peers from the battlefield. Now scientists have discovered that this ant can recognize inflamed wounds and administer homemade antibiotics.

Megaponera analis
Source: IPS - photo: By ETF89 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) are relatively large ants common south of the Sahara. They exclusively eat termites, and thus undertake dangerous hunting expeditions on a daily basis, attacking termite colonies.

Termites, however, are formidable adversaries with fierce defense mechanisms. The ants often suffer injuries during these confrontations, and the risk of infection poses a significant threat to their survival.

Effective treatment

However, Matabele ants have developed an advanced medical technique to boost the chances of survival of their injured comrades. Researchers from the universities of W├╝rzburg and Lausanne discovered that the ants can distinguish between infected and uninfected wounds. What's more, the latter they can effectively treat with antibiotics they produce themselves.

Chemical analyses revealed that the composition of the Matabele ant's outer body wall changes in response to wound infection. The ants recognize this change, allowing them to accurately determine the infection status of their injured nestmates.

For treatment, the ants use antimicrobial compounds and proteins from a gland located on the side of their thorax. Secretions from the gland contain 112 compounds, half of which have antimicrobial or wound-healing properties. The treatment is remarkably effective: it reduces the mortality rate of infected ants by as much as 90 percent.

Attention from Netflix

"With the exception of humans, I know of no other living creature that can perform such sophisticated medical wound treatments," says Erik Frank, lead author of the study that appeared in the renowned journal Nature Communications.

His colleague, Swiss biologist Laurent Keller, points out the medical implications for humans: the primary pathogen in ant wounds, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, is also a major cause of infections in humans. Some strains are resistant to antibiotics.

In the next stage, therefore, the researchers want to identify and analyze the antibiotics used by Matabele ants. According to them, this could potentially lead to the discovery of new antibiotics with applications in human medicine.

Fun fact: The Matabele ants and their extraordinary healing powers even attracted the attention of Hollywood. The nature documentary series "Life on Our Planet," directed by Steven Spielberg and now available on Netflix, devotes an entire segment in its fifth episode to the warlike insects.

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