In the ongoing struggle against antibiotic resistance it appears as though the humble ant could provide us with a solution.
Scientists have discovered that certain ant species have a truly remarkable ability to shrug off even the most powerful bacteria.
The ants carry the natural antibiotics on the surface of their exoskeletons.
Experts hope that in future they will provide a much-needed source of new antibiotics to replace those that are rapidly proving ineffective.
Researcher Dr Adrian Smith, from North Carolina State University in the US, said: “One species we looked at, the thief ant (Solenopsis molesta), had the most powerful antibiotic effect of any species we tested – and until now, no one had even shown that they made use of antimicrobials.
“Finding a species that carries a powerful antimicrobial agent is good news for those interested in finding new antibiotic agents that can help humans.
To test how effective the substance was they used a solvent to remove it from the exoskeletons of the ants and then subjected it to a bacterial “slurry”.
What they found was remarkable. Bacterial growth was completely halted in the slurry containing the thief ant antibiotic sample.
Twelve out of 20 ant species were found to carry some kind of effective antimicrobial agent, while eight did not appear to make use of antibiotics at all.
The research is reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Dr Smith added: “The fact that not all ants use antimicrobials highlights the importance of refining our search for species that actually do hold promise for biomedical research.
“Next steps include testing ant species against other bacteria, determining what substances are producing the antibiotic effects – and whether ants produce them or obtain them elsewhere – and exploring what alternative strategies ants use to defend against bacterial pathogens.”