Monthly Archives: December 2001

Ants and Antibiotics


      The search for better antibiotics has taken Scientists to lots of strange places. And now they are exploring the insect world.

      This VERITAS is inspired by a very interesting program I saw on the Discovery channel a few days back.

      The South American leaf cutting ants( Attini ants ) took a big evolutionary step millions of years back. They gave up their hunting and gathering ways and started agriculture. It was a profound evolutionary step and it worked.

      The Attini ants cut and gather leaves and take them into their colony. These leaves are used as a compost on which fungal crops like small mushrooms grow. The ants eat these mushrooms !

      Now it is not that simple. There is a villan too. There is a parasite -the weed fungus that destroys the Ant’s crop. It can within a short time kill all the  mushrooms that the Ants have grown. But Ants have a way to tacke this problem: The ants secrete a bacterium that kills these parasites. This bacterium acts as an antibiotic against not only the weed fungus but lots of other disease causing organisms that can destroy the Ant’s crop.

      But the most interesting thing is that the antibiotics released by ants have been effective in killing all disease causing organisms for the last 50 million years!! And the antibiotics that we humans have invented lose their potency in 50-100 years. The bacteria evolve to become resistant to our antibiotics.

      Now Scientists are doing research to find how ants make their antibiotic so effective for so long. And whether we humans can use the antibiotic secreated by the ants. It seems that some south American tribes have been using the antibiotic secreated by these ants for hundreds of years.