A colony of ants could help humans develop new antibiotics to fight the growing global menace of resistant superbugs.
Prime Minister David Cameron has today warned that the world could be plunged back into dark ages of medicine because of lack of new antibiotics.
Bacteria is becoming increasingly resistant to existing medicines and new stronger antibiotics need to be found before some diseases become uncurable.
British scientists at the University of East Anglia say the leafcutters ants could save countless lives thanks to a natural antibiotic they produce.
Researcher Dr Matthew Hutchings said: “Antibiotic resistance is a global health threat. Even common infections which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.
“Our research is motivated by an urgent need to find new antibiotics.
“We hope that these leafcutter ants will help us solve antibiotic resistance and provide us with the next generation of drugs.
“These ants have already helped us find two new antibiotics which we hope will be useful in clinical medicine.”
The pioneering research by the School of Biological Studies centres on a particular type of fungus the ants eat, and how the ants’ natural resistance protects it.
Dr Hutchings explained: “Leafcutter ants from South and Central America evolved antibiotic use 50 million years ago.
“They love to eat a particular kind of fungus, which the worker ants protect using natural antibiotics produced by bacteria on their bodies.
“The worker ants climb over the fungus and sniff it, and any fungus, which we call weeds, that aren’t the food they eat they take over to a completely different area and sterilise.
“They rub more than one antibiotic – they produce several – onto the weeds using their chest plates which excrete it, and then bury it.
“This means the fungus they eat can thrive.”
He added: “We questioned why there were no problems in ants compared to human antibiotics and found they use multiple drug combinations to prevent drug resistance from arising.
“So by using multiple antibiotics at once, we can slow the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. This is something that human medicine is only just starting to explore.”
There are eight scientists at the university who have been working on the project for seven years with three large colonies of ants.
They hope the ants will not only provide the next generation of antibiotics but also show beneficial ways of working with bacteria.
The team’s research will be on display at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2014 from July 1 to July 6, which showcases the best in British innovation.
A captive leafcutter ant colony will be displayed alongside an ‘antibiotic discovery zone’ at the Summer Science Exhibition.
Two thirds of antibiotics are “natural products” made by a group of bacteria called actinomycetes that live in the soil.
But when soil bacteria produce these antibiotics they also express resistance genes to protect them against the antibiotic’s toxic effects.
These resistance genes have spread to other “bad” bacteria, causing some strains to evolve and render many antibiotics useless.