Are ants the answer to the development of new antibiotics?

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An ant colony may help scientists in the development of a new strain of antibiotics to aid in the fight against resistant superbugs.

Bacteria have increased its resistance to existing drugs and there is a need to find new antibiotics before some of the diseases become incurable.

Scientists based at the University of East Anglia stated that leafcutter ants may be the answer because of the natural antibiotic that is produced by them. One of the researchers, Dr Matthew Hutchings, said that resistance to antibiotics has become a global threat. He said that common infections which have been treatable for decades may once again kill people. Their research has been motivated by an urgent requirement to find new antibiotics and the team is hoping that the leafcutter ants will aid them in finding the next drug generation.

He added that the ants have already aided in finding two new antibiotics which the researchers are hoping will be useful in clinical medicine.

The research undertaken by the School of biological Studies focuses on a certain fungus type which is eaten by the ants and how their natural resistance to it protects them.

Dr Hutchings said the ants form Central and South America evolved antibiotic use at least 50 million years ago. They eat a particular type of fungus, which is protected by the worker ants by the use of natural antibiotics which are produced by the bacteria on their bodies.

The worker ants climb over the particular fungus, sniff it and any of the weeds which do not fall into the type of food they eat, they isolate to a different area and commence sterilisation of it. They make use of their chest plates to excrete the antibiotic to rub it onto the weeds. Thereafter they bury it. This implies that the fungus they eat will thrive.

The team raised the question as to why the ants had no problems, compared to humans, and found that they make use of multiple drug combinations to prevent drug resistance.

Hence, by making use of different antibiotics at the same time, it may be possible to stop the increase of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. This factor is only now being explored by human medicine.

There are currently eight scientists based at the university who have worked on this project for seven years making use of three large ant colonies. They are hoping that not only will the ants provide them with the next generation of antibiotics, but also indicate suitable methods of working with bacteria.

The research of the team will be displayed at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2014 from July 1 through to July 6. An ant colony comprised of leafcutter ants will be displayed along with an ‘antibiotic discovery zone’ at the Summer Science Exhibition.

Image Credit: Kathy & sam

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