Matabele ants live a dangerous life. Species of ants found in sub-Saharan Africa Megaponera analis As a predator, it specializes in hunting highly defensive prey, termites. When raiding large nests, ants are often struck by the powerful termite jaws. Dangerous bacteria frequently invade these wounds, an often fatal problem. But as a team led by Eric Franke of the University of Würzburg reports, Matabele ants have developed a solution somewhat reminiscent of human medicine: They can detect infected wounds—and treat them specifically with the body's own antibiotics.
In their study, now published in the journal Nature Communications. The body of work demonstrates how important this ability is to the ants' lifestyle. Of the ants that were deliberately infected and whose wounds were contaminated with soil bacteria, 90 percent died within just a day and a half from infection with pathogens such as: Pseudomonas aeruginosaThese are bacteria that are also dangerous to humans. However, only if they do not have any contact with other animals. If there are other Matabele ants nearby, only a fifth of them die. Film footage from the working group soon revealed the reason: the animals were using a type of antibiotic ointment.
First, ants clean the wounds of their fellow ants with their mouth parts. Then – and this is the crucial step – they use their front legs to scrape a sticky fluid from two openings in their bodies called the hypothoracic glands and treat wounds with this secretion. They do this more often, as shown, in ants with infected lesions—particularly in those when the infection has already advanced. Further analyzes by Frank's team show that ants can smell infected wounds: in animals infected with the bacteria, the composition of hydrocarbons on the ants' shells changed, which act as signaling substances for the animals.
The secret of the glandular secretion is that it kills bacteria. This does not come as a complete surprise, as the secretion of the cystoid gland also has an antibacterial effect in other ants. But surprisingly, the secretion is effective enough to effectively treat infected infections. According to the working group's analyses, the secretion consists of more than 100 compounds, a much larger number than is found in other ants. It also contains 41 proteins, 20 of which resemble known substances with proven or potential antibacterial effects. This makes the behavior of Matabele ants quite unusual. Many animals treat wounds with antiseptic saliva. But identifying infected wounds and treating them with antibiotics was previously the preserve of humans.
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