Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Ants use fungi as their 'pharmacy'

Scientists at the University of Madison have just received $16 million to help their search for new antimicrobial drugs. Many people will have heard that we need to constantly expand our range of antibiotics and antifungal drugs as the micro-organism infections that we fight with those drugs gradually become resistant.

Drug companies have of course known this for many years (the search for new antibiotics dates back to the 1940's)  and have been searching the natural environment for candidates for 70 years. Sadly this approach is becoming more difficult and new approaches are needed.

One new approach is to take advantage of the naturally evolved habit of some ant colonies to promote the growth of fungi in their nests.


It has been noted that only certain fungal strains are encouraged, some are good to eat but some are also known to secrete antibiotics. The ants take advantage of this ability and seem to use it to prevent bacterial growth in their nests - they tolerate the fungi well (and may well be adapted to do so) but too much bacterial growth would cause sickness.

This behaviour may be the result of millions of years of evolution, so it follows that the fungi have also evolved to fight bacterial infection and may be producing new compounds. The Madison group are looking for those novel compounds.

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