Ant-ibiotics: ants treat infected wounds with their own antibiotics

New research has found that Matabele ants have developed the ability to identify infected wounds and treat them with antibiotics they produce themselves.

Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) are found south of the Sahara in Africa, where they only eat termites. It’s common for the ants to sustain injuries while hunting because the termite soldiers defend others of the same species with their powerful mandibles.

But they’ve developed a sophisticated way to care for their injured: distinguishing between infected and non-infected wounds.

Example of wound care performed with metapleural gland secretions collected from the gland of the individual providing care. The infected ant is marked in white. We first observe wound care by the nursing ant, followed by the collection of metapleural gland secretions using the forelegs to reach the gland and mouth and finally application of metapleural gland secretions on the wound. Credit: Erik Frank / University of Wuerzburg

“Chemical analyses have shown that the hydrocarbon profile of the ant cuticle changes as a result of a wound infection,” says Dr Erik Frank, from the Julius Maximilian University of Würzbur, Germany, lead author of a paper in Nature Communications.

The ants apply antimicrobial compounds and proteins to the infected wounds. These are produced by the ants’ metapleural gland, which is located on the side of their thorax. Its secretion contains 112 components, of which half have an antimicrobial or wound-healing effect.

The research group discovered that the ant’s unconventional therapy is also highly effective, reducing the mortality rate for infected individuals by 90%.

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On the left a fresh injury, on the right the condition one hour after treatment. The wound surface appears to be sealed. Credit: Erik Frank / University of Wuerzburg

“With the exception of humans, I know of no other living creature that can carry out such sophisticated medical wound treatments,” says Frank.

These findings have medical implications as the primary pathogenic bacteria in the ants’ wounds, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, is also a leading cause of infection in humans, with several strains having developed resistance to antibiotics.

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