One Superbug Meets Another: Ants Could Be the Key to Battling Antibiotic Resistance

Again, man turns to nature in his time of need.

9. 26. 16 by Jelor Gallego
Tim Flach/Getty Images
Image by Tim Flach/Getty Images

A Symbiotic Relationship

Antibiotic resistance is a huge crisis currently threatening the whole world. In fact, it’s such a big deal that it’s even being discussed by the UN General Assembly. According to estimates, more than 700,000 people die of drug-resistant infections each year across the globe, and bad bacteria continue to evolve against the treatments that do work.

To help alleviate that problem, researchers are looking for answers in the unlikeliest of places: the backs of ants.

Scientists have found ants that cultivate bacteria they can use against invading fungi and microbes, and it could be a potential new source for antibiotics. Researchers have narrowed down the search for these special ants to species that cultivate fungi as their food source, such as leaf-cutter ants, which are found in North and South America.

The leaf-cutter ants bring leaves back to their nests and leave them on the ground for fungi to decompose. The fungi then becomes a food source for the ants. All is well until other fungi types start invading the nest’s turf, killing both the ants and the farmed fungi. To protect themselves, the ants enter a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria that excrete antibiotic and antifungal compounds. These bacteria look like powdered sugar sprinkled on the ants’ backs.


This war between the ants and the detrimental fungi has been going on for millions of years, so the techniques and compounds the ants use have had time to be refined and improved upon. This gives researchers a solid basis on which to test out new ideas on the most-effective compounds to use to make our own medicines to fight antibiotic resistance.

New Avenues For Treatments

Research of this kind has actually been going on since the ’90s, and not only has it yielded antibiotic and antifungal treatments, but the original studies also explored whether researchers could use the ants to develop anti-cancer and antiparasitic drugs.

This line of research highlights the variety of unlikely places scientists have been looking for answers to solve this superbug crisis. Apart from developing new drugs, researchers have also been exploring the use of viruses to kill bacteria and even nanotechnology solutions to combat drug-resistant bacteria.

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