Nearly ever zombie movie that has graced the silver screen has at least one scene where the bold heroes are faced with a team member who may or may not be infected. They struggle with the reality of the situation, debating whether or not to continue on, leave their potentially dangerous comrade behind, or (in only the rarest of cases) be proactive and put the individual out of their misery.
A new research paper by an international team of biologists reveals that ants apparently don’t have the same problem, and not only do they know if one of their newly born colony members is infected with a pathogen, they also respond promptly to the threat by killing off their kin and halting disease in its tracks.
The study focused on the ability of ants to detect chemical cues in other ants while they are still in their pupae stage. If the colony detects that one of the juvenile ants is a disease carrier they waste no time in conducting what scientists term “destructive disinfection.”
The ants cleanse their home by yanking the immobilized ant from its cocoon and apply an “antimicrobial poison” that prevents the pathogen from spreading. As you might have guessed by the sound of it, the infected ant does not survive the ordeal, but sacrificing one of their own is a small price to pay for keeping the colony intact.
“Like the immune system of a metazoan body that specifically targets and eliminates infected cells, ants destroy infected brood to stop the pathogen completing its life cycle, thus protecting the rest of the colony,” the researchers write. “Hence, in an analogous fashion, the same principles of disease defense apply at different levels of biological organization.”
In short, the colony is actually mimicking the same reflexive defense action of a healthy immune system, only they’re doing it on a more manual level. It’s remarkable to see the link between insects and other animals (including humans) displayed in such a clear way, so the next time you see a tiny ant on the sidewalk take a moment to remember just how alike you are.